There are no bad words

I’m pretty straight-laced, so people who know me may be surprised by that title. I mean it, but let me clarify. There are crude words. There are hurtful, insulting words. There are words meant to shock that are usually a crutch or stumbling block to saying something meaningful. There are boring words. There are dangerous words. There are certainly words that I don’t felt the need to use in my writing or my everyday conversation.

But I don’t like to think of them as “bad words.” Like all words, they have a meaning and a function in communication.

To illustrate, I’ll use a four-letter word I find particularly insidious: “hate.” My kids are allowed to hate Brussels sprouts and homework and early bed times. I discourage them from saying they hate other people. Why? Hate is a dangerous word, and I want them to think carefully about how they use it.

Now, let’s look at these words: Fun. Good. Bad. Said. I. He. She. It. Stuff. Things. A lot. Pretty. Walk. Big.

Some teachers are trying to ban these and other common words entirely from their students’ writing vocabulary, a trend covered in this article from the Wall Street Journal.

I’ve long been aware of the campaign of some English teachers to encourage their students to use adverbs to liven up dialogue tags: “He said happily,” instead of just “He said.” Now, adverbs are NOT bad words. They have their place. For instance, “I expect to die at any moment now,” he said cheerfully. There might be a way to write around that “cheerfully,” but it does its job: it shows that the statement is being said in a way the reader might not expect. It changes the meaning and gives more understanding. But then there’s, “I’m having a great day,” she said happily. We don’t need happily, because we’ll read it that way anyway, and extra words just bog down a story.

These teachers are doing a disservice by encouraging the thoughtless use of words. Now we have the other extreme, with teachers advocating the thoughtless dismissal of perfectly functional words.

I love words, and I love supporting young writers, so this makes me angry. These teachers are crippling their students’ abilities to express themselves by laying down arbitrary rules. Encourage your students to expand their vocabulary and seek out more interesting ways to say something? Great! Ban serviceable words from their lexicon? Boo!

Let’s look at “said” as an example. “Said” is almost invisible in writing. And guess what? That’s a GOOD thing. Readers love dialogue, and when we’re deep in the middle of it, we don’t want to be distracted by bleated, honked, chattered, cried, shouted, chirped, barked, etc. Those words are attention hogs. They’re not serving their story; they’re distracting from it by saying, “Look at  me!” Occasionally, we want that. But not in every line of dialogue. Heaven help anyone who has to read a book written that way.

Okay, then what about “pretty?” “She was pretty” is a bland statement–say it to ten different people and you’ll have ten different images of what “she” looks like. It would be better to say, “Her glossy black hair fell down her back in long ringlets, and her brown eyes shone with laughter.” Now maybe we’re more or less on the same page. But “pretty” need not be tossed in the garbage. How about, “She was a pretty enough girl, in a shy, retiring way.” In that example, “pretty” adds to the sentence’s voice, and its vagueness supports the narrator’s description of the girl. It’s not a “bad” word, it’s just a frequently misused one.

Writers have a tendency to get bogged down in rules. “Adverbs are bad.” “‘Was’ is bad.” “Show don’t tell.” There’s a reason behind each of these rules–and it’s important to understand that reason–but they are not unbendable, unbreakable guidelines to good writing. Writing may be one of the hardest of the arts because it’s deeply subjective and difficult to teach and to learn–there are things writers can learn about structure, voice, or dialogue, but there’s no formula that makes writing work. What is spell-binding in one author’s hands may be clunky and unreadable in another’s. Still, that search to pin it down means writers get hung up on rules, afraid to tell their story in a natural way.

So, instead of teaching young writers that some words are “bad,” teach them how to actually think about words–what they mean, what they imply, and the work they do in a piece of writing. Encourage them to stretch themselves, but to always keep an eye on the ultimate goal: to communicate clearly and effectively.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style isn’t perfect by any means, but I think its underlying premise holds true: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”

Make every word matter.

If not, we may end up with the kind of writing George Orwell warned us against in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” when he said language should be “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”

And here are his simple rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Though my writing is far from perfect, I owe a great debt to my high school English teachers: Mrs. Hampton, Mr. Arnt, and Mr. Bennett. Thank you for teaching me to love and think about words instead of boxing them, and my writing, into arbitrary rules.


Why a one-star review made me happy

In the social media age, reviews are critical to a book’s success–a digital form of word-of-mouth publicity, which is the best kind of advertising. While we authors would love it if everyone thought our books deserved five stars, there’s no book out there that connects with everyone, and when a book only has five-star reviews, readers tend to be skeptical (rightly so, as the fake review industry casts a tarnish over the reliability of reviews).

There’s a saying among authors that you know you’ve “made it” when you get your first one-star review–the idea being that your book is really getting out there, even into the hands of people who might not be your target audience. Some of this could be meant to soothe the sting, because, yes, it hurts when some says your baby is ugly. Most authors (myself included) try not to pay too much attention to reviews, since obsessing over them can make us crazier than usual. I do know I have a couple of one-star reviews, and while I don’t love them, I’m learning they don’t have to be devastating.

In one of my one-star reviews, the reviewer was upset by the ending of my book. She said enough for me to realize she didn’t quite understand what I intended (and if I understood it the way she did, it would make me mad too). The review actually made me happy. Why? Because she cared enough to give it one star. She evidently liked the book, but the ending made her mad–she was invested enough to really feel something and to say something about it. It’s a compliment in a way an “it was okay” two- or three-star review or rating isn’t, at least in this case (If she had said she read twenty pages and hated everything about it so much she couldn’t stand it, that would have been different). This is a chance for me to learn something from a stranger who read my book–a stranger who thought the concept was appealing enough to become a potential reader. I can see where her misunderstanding came from, and while I can’t correct it in this book (though I am working on a follow-up short story to answer some questions readers had about the ending), I can make sure I don’t make the same mistake again.

So, don’t forget to leave honest reviews of the books you read. And if you get a one-star review, indulge in your favorite comfort food and keep writing. You’re one step closer to connecting with your target audience.

I don’t want to be the next [fill in the blank]

Make no mistake, I want to be successful, but I don’t think being someone else’s shadow is the way to do that. I recently read a book touted to be just like [big name author]. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t a bad story, but it suffered by the comparison. There are a lot of authors I consider classics, soaring to new heights and taking the literary world with them: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Terry Pratchett (to name a few). I try to learn from them, but I don’t try to be them. I don’t have anything against tributes or retellings–I love them when they draw new insights from or put fresh spins on familiar stories. But no one is going to be a better Tolkien than Tolkien or a better Jane Austen than Jane Austen. If I try to be them, I’m always going to fall short.

Judy Garland said, “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of someone else.” And, while I almost never agree with Nietzsche on anything, I do like this: “At bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvelously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is, ever be put together a second time.”

The time writers really shine is when we find our own voices. I believe we have more to offer the world by writing our own stories than by trying to write anyone else’s.

Reading like a writer and writing like a reader

First, as a total digression, my book comes out one month from today! I’m freaking out a little, but mostly in a good way. I’m super excited and looking at a crazy calendar of giveaways, signings, blog tours, and (no doubt) an emotional roller coaster.

Last week I taught a class on reading like a writer and writing like a reader to a group of aspiring teen authors, which was a lot of fun. I thought since I had the handout all made up, I’d share it here as well. We learn a lot by writing, by critiquing and being critiqued, by reading books about writing, but I believe there are some things we can only learn by reading, and reading widely. So, here are some questions I ask myself when I read (and try to ask myself about my own work when I edit, though that tends to be more difficult):

Reading like a writer, writing like a reader

E.B. Wheeler

Writing is a series of choices. Slow down and study what the writer is doing. Take their story apart and examine each piece so you learn what to do (and what not to do!) to build your own story.

Remember: There’s no one right way to tell a story—you’re not looking to copy another author’s style or steal the magic formula; you’re looking for tools that you can use as you develop your own voice and style.

Reading questions:

  • Why did the author write this (what seems to be its purpose and theme)?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is the form and genre?
  • What is the point of view and who is the point of view character? Why might the author have chosen that POV?
  • What kind of language is the author using—formal, informal, modern, archaic? What effect does this create?
  • How does the author use sentence length to create rhythm and mood?
  • How is the author using dialogue? Does it advance the plot and illuminate characters?
  • How is the author using descriptions? Does it distract from the story or enhance it by adding to the mood and reflecting the character’s frame of mind?
  • Am I ever bored or confused? Why?
  • What kind of tension is in each scene (i.e., active conflicts–man versus man, man versus nature, man versus self–unsolved mysteries, dramatic irony [when the reader knows something characters don’t, either good or bad], ticking bombs, romantic tension, social tension [including embarrassment], interpersonal tension, moral dilemmas)? Does it vary from scene to scene–a new kind of tension rising as a previous one is resolved? Does the tension relate back to character, conflict, and stakes–the character’s struggle to reach their ultimate goal?
  • How does the author transition between scene/sequel/scene (action/reaction/action)?
  • What about this resonates (or doesn’t)? Is the author “telling the truth?” Do the emotions feel fresh and authentic, or like canned “Hollywood” reactions?
  • Are there techniques here I can use in my own writing?
  • What would I do differently if I had written this piece?

Write your first draft for you—have fun, write what you would like to read. Don’t worry yet about if it’s any good. THEN edit for your readers. Dig into your writer’s toolbox and pull out whatever’s going to help them enjoy the story more.

Storymakers 2015: Meaningful, believable relationships in stories

Here’s another post about lessons from LDStorymakers, this one including my own “light bulb” moment at the conference. On Thursday, my agent emailed me suggesting that the next step in revising my manuscript is to deepen the relationships between the characters. I started thinking about how I would do that and, honestly, not feeling very sure about how to go about it. My very first class on Friday at Storymakers was Sarah Eden’s class on defining relationships, and while the rest of the conference was great, it would have been worth it for me just to go to this one. It was a light bulb moment and gave me the formula I needed to make the relationships in my manuscript do more.

Among other things, Sarah Eden talked about how all deep, realistic relationships are about needs. Characters are in relationships because it fulfills some need for them, but it also might keep them from facing a shortcoming they need to overcome. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Bingley’s friendship fulfills Darcy’s need for someone who tolerates/accepts his social backwardness and Bingley’s need for guidance from someone with a level head. In order to grow, they have to face these shortcomings. Darcy needs to develop his own social skills, and Bingley needs to learn to make his own decisions. As the characters grow and change, their relationship must change as well.

Ms. Eden pointed out that the real, internal change that is the hallmark of realistic characters in a well-developed story must have an external reflection, including in the character’s relationships with others. Some relationships will strengthen and deepen, some will shift (i.e. from friendship or even antagonism to romance, from mentor to friend or enemy), and others will become more distant or dissolve altogether. Some may not change on the surface, but the underlying dynamics will be different (such as in family relationships). The external changes have to be a natural outgrowth of the internal changes, but if they don’t take place, the internal changes seem less real, and the characters and their relationships ring false or shallow.

This way of evaluating relationships has me super excited to get back to work on the relationships in my manuscript. I already know my characters well–their strengths and weaknesses, the “wounds and wants” that motivate their actions–and their relationships do change in the story, but now I have a tool for examining those relationships and their growth. I can ask myself at the beginning of the story what each relationship means to them–what needs it fulfills–and in what ways their relationships are “unhealthy”–providing a crutch for their shortcomings that will have to be removed. I can make sure their relationships reveal more to the reader about who they are. Then, I can make sure the shifts in their relationships by the end of story reflect their internal struggles. Doing so will hopefully help my readers (and my agent 🙂 ) feel like the relationships are deeper and more real.

Storymakers 2015: recipes for sauces of awesomeness in writing (character, conflict, stakes)

LDStorymakers Conference was this weekend, and it was fantastic. I wish I could download everything I heard and saw and share it with everyone–it was inspiring and enlightening and invigorating. In lieu of that, I’m doing a couple of posts sharing some of my favorite thoughts and moments in hopes that it may spark something for someone else too. 🙂

Interestingly, nearly every class I attended alluded to one or more of: Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars. I suppose these are pretty prevalent stories in our culture, but I also think this tells us something about the appeal these stories have–there’s something there worth learning from. Also, I heard two unforgivable character sins mentioned more than once: flat-out stupidity (not to be confused with understandable bad decisions) and whining/self pity. An overarching theme of the classes I attended was the focus on character, conflict, stakes and emotion.

Bestselling author Jennifer Nielsen emphasized that characters are the most important element of a story, and that the main character must have clear and desperate goals. She said, “Every scene is a fight scene.” This doesn’t mean every scene is an argument or a battle, but that every scene should be about the character’s struggle (against internal and external forces) to reach their goal. The protagonist must be proactive and have some trait that makes us invest in their story and connect to them emotionally. The antagonist is just as important: a strong, well-developed antagonist (whether human, animal, nature itself, or an internal force) makes for a strong story and for a protagonist who becomes strong in his or her struggle against the antagonist who stands in the way of his or her goals. Every word and every scene in the story must count and move readers toward the climax–the fulfillment of that desperate goal–and it needs to deliver a big payoff. Stick the landing!

Likewise, award-winning author and MFA professor Martine Leavitt said that the biggest mistake she sees in student work is stories with character whom readers don’t want to follow. The character doesn’t have to be “likeable” in a traditional way (think of TV’s House), but they must have a trait that makes us cheer for them (and being pitted against a good antagonist can do that: House is a jerk, but he’s brilliant, and he’s fighting scary, overwhelming antagonists in the forms of mysterious, deadly diseases in others and pain and addiction in himself). According to Leavitt, the main character’s desire (desperate goal) is the engine of the story, as well as its fuel and destination. Everything in a story should be about developing the character and/or their struggle to reach their goal (they may not achieve it–they may learn it’s not what they really want or need–but they and the entire story have to be driven by it).

Agent Victoria Marini said that character and voice cover a multitude of sins, while flat characters and lack of conflict or urgency (stakes) are high on the list of reasons a manuscript is rejected. She emphasized showing, not telling–putting readers in the important action and letting them see it unfold instead of just reporting on it later. This helps develop that emotional connection and interest. She also gave some great advice for keeping a plot moving and the conflict and stakes high: every question answered should raise a new question. By extension, I would say every problem solved should raise a new problem until they all come together at the climax.

That’s it, folks: characters, conflicts, stakes. Obviously there are other issues like voice, grammar, subplots, dialogue, and the elusive but essential emotional connection that also have to come together at some point in the writing process, but this is the heart. It’s what every good query is and what every good story has. It’s why some authors like to write their query early in the drafting/writing process: because you have to know these things to build the rest of your story, and these are the elements that will keep readers reading.

My new can’t-write-without-it writing tool

Historical fiction writers and word geeks, may I introduce you to your new best friend: the Online Etymology Dictionary. Etymology is the study of the history of words, or, as the Online Etymology Dictionary defines it, the “facts of the origin and development of a word.” This is not to be confused with entomology, the study of insects. 😉

Few things ruin historical fiction faster than words or phrases that don’t fit the time period (imagine a dashing Regency hero with an immaculately tied cravat telling someone to “chill out”–and the spell is broken), and that’s where this dictionary comes in handy. It draws on the immense and expensive Oxford English Dictionary but is much more accessible (and free!). For instance, it tells me that my characters could go on a picnic anytime after the year 1748 (the first time the word was used in English), but are not likely to do so until 1800 or after (when the word became common). They can collect knick-knacks starting in the 1570s, hobnob after 1763, and while they can “make over” an old dress starting in the 1590s, they cannot get a “makeover” until 1981.

Google Ngram Viewer also helps writers pinpoint historical word usage by telling us when and how frequently a word was used in historical books. The great thing about the Online Etymology Dictionary, though, is that it explains how a word evolved over time. For instance, take the word mess. We use it often in modern English. Its original meaning was “a portion of food” (i.e., the Biblical/proverbial “a mess of pottage”). It came to mean a group of people eating together, so that by the 1530s it was used in the sense of “mess hall” for a place to dine. By 1738, it could mean food mixed all together. Then by 1828, it evolved to mean any kind of a jumble, and by 1834 it also meant “a state of confusion.” Now it’s the word we recognize, but you still have to be careful about idioms. “Make a mess” was first used in 1853, “mess with” is from 1903, “make a mess of [something]” 1909, and “mess up” 1933. Also, several of these started as Americanisms, so they may not have caught on quickly across the pond.

This means my Elizabethan characters will probably not use the word “mess” (because the only way they would understand it is a meaning that would confuse my modern readers). My Victorian characters can say, “What a mess” or “messy,” and they can “make a mess,” but they won’t “mess up.”

I admit this can get nitpicky (c.1962), and even the really sharp, “voice-y” historical fiction writers like Georgette Heyer occasionally let a modernism slip into their books without crumbling the facade of the world they’ve created, but I work on the theory that the fewer modern allusions in a book to pull readers out of the story, the better. On the other hand, if we use too much archaic language, all but the most stalwart (late 14th century) or hardcore (1951) readers will probably have trouble getting immersed in the story and drift away, so it’s a tightrope walk and depends on our intended audience. Still, if nothing else, the Online Etymology Dictionary will satisfy word lovers’ urges to geek out for a while.