Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Picture This: Good Writing Should be Visual

There have been many studies done on language concreteness—the fact that specific, vivid, definite words and phrases evoke mental images—and it has been shown to be an important determiner of reading comprehension. In a paper published by the International Reading Association, the authors write: ‘“snarling tiger” is concrete and image-evoking, but “policy concept” is abstract, less likely to evoke images.”
Though this conclusion—that some words are more likely than others to produce mental images—seems intuitive, many writers are still ignoring it, and not writing in a way that is most effective at producing word-images. I contend that all of those writers’ readers suffer because of it.
Case in point, a writer I was working with had written a sentence that went something like this: “She remembered how she’d sat there by the fire, as a young girl, having her hair brushed by her mother.” I brought up the concept of language concreteness and together, we changed the line to: “She saw herself as a young girl, sitting by the fire, her mother brushing her hair.”
“Saw” is visual, “remembered” is not—you can picture someone in the act of seeing, but can you picture someone in the act of remembering? And “a young girl” is something we can easily picture (though all of us will have a different picture), so the sooner we get to that phrase, the better the imagery-inducing effect. The mother comes in sooner, too, which is all to the good, as the girl having her hair brushed is a very general idea until the mother comes in—after all, the young girl could have been having her hair brushed by a sister, a friend, or even a teacher. We don’t have to wait so long before we can “picture” what is happening.
This of course, explains the war on “thought verbs” that I’m waging, along with Chuck Palahniuk and others. Thought verbs are not visual. And the current focus on eliminating so-called “filter words” is in some ways driven by the same concept.
One great trick for spotting all this thought-full filtering is to read your work out loud—or have someone else read it aloud. You'll hear endless iterations of your characters having “thought about” and “remembered” and “contemplated” and the like. Mark those words and phrases. When you go back and rewrite, you'll find ways to substitute verbs that make your writing much more active—and, in the process, much more visual.
So, get to reading and re-writing now—and hasta pronto!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Five Fabulous Writing Books to Re-read

There's so much to be said about writing—and much of it has already been said, by wonderful writers. Here is my short list of the best books I've read about writing. Each of these jewels is brimming with advice and instruction, but each one is different, so there's something here for every aspiring writing.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is the first book I refer to new-to-the-craft writers. Her clear and practical "way" is a great method for kick-starting your writing at any stage, but is ideal for those who've not yet settled into their writing rhythm—those who want to write, but who just haven't yet made it a part of their life. I would suggest that all new writers read this book, preferably in conjunction with Natalie Goldberg's book below. Cameron's process is also effective for experienced writers who are struggling to birth a new work, and can't seem to get the words flowing.
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard inspires me each time I dip into it. Dillard is one of the best non-fiction writers ever and you'll know why when you read this slim book—it carries the weight of years of deep knowledge. Like her masterpiece, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her book on writing resonates with images of the natural world, and is one you'll want to own. Though she can be a bit tough about what is required to pare your prose down to its essence, it is tough love, not strictness for the sake of itself.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. You've probably heard of him, so I'll say no more about his credentials. The thing is—no matter if you like and read his fiction or not—the man can really write, and he also writes quite well about "the craft" of writing, as he calls it. And he's funny. Enough said.
Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on the Writing Life by Anne Lamott. This is Lamott at her best—and her best is very good indeed. For those who like a little bit of philosophy and theology with their writing instructions, this is the book for you. In this book, she writes: “I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer.” But she also includes some very funny lines that will inspire you to quote them again and again—like this one: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
And, last but certainly not least, is Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. Yes, she has words of wisdom, and yes, she has tips to offer, but the reason this book changed my life (yes, it really did!) wasn't because of all that, so much as her inspirational style. Her voice is the voice of the best friend you can imagine, who will drop everything, anytime, to go with you to a cafe and just write. And listen to your writerly bitching about your story and how it just won't work right, and give you encouragement, and buy you a cup of tea, and keep listening; who offers a shoulder when you need one, and a nudge back toward your work—with a quick word about what she loves about your writing—when that's called for. I love this author and can't recommend her book enough.
Whichever of these books you choose, I hope you'll be inspired to write, and to keep on writing. Remember: "Tell your stories."
hasta pronto! 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Few Words on Favorite Words

We all have favorite words and phrases. As oral communicators, that's fine (until your significant other or close friend finally says that you need to stop saying "like" or "you know"!) As writers, we have to be aware of those pet phrases and try to eliminate a majority of their occurances in our work. If you're lucky, your editor will not only spot the recurring words or phrases, but will help you find ways to work around them, rewrite them, or even delete them.
It's always surprising to see experienced writers, as well as editors, fall prey to this trap. I do it myself, even though I'm aware of my key phrases and words. One of them is "key." Another is "as well as."
I'd suggest that you not try to correct this habit while writing your first draft. Write to your heart's content and don't worry about picking and choosing words while getting your story onto the page. But when you go back over your manuscript, attune your radar to be aware of words that recurr. Especially if the word is an odd one. The word "egregious" doesn't belong in a novel more than once, unless it's used in dialogue to signal a character's persnickety way of speaking.
Obviously, common words can recurr hundreds of times in a manuscript without raising any eyebrows, however, even using a word like "but" too often, especially at the start of a paragraph, will start to annoy readers.
Be glad you have modern software tools like "find" or "search" for seeking out word repetitions in a manuscript. Back in the day, we had no choice but to employ a highlighter pen and a lot of patience.
Something else I'm frequently seeing in manuscripts is the overuse of "thought verbs," like the words "thought" and "remembered." Readers of my blog, and fans of Chuck Palahniuk will have heard this advice before, but you can't hear it often enough: using too many thought verbs is a bad habit that slows down your writing.
If your character is remembering how she and her former flame spent their evenings, you can just write: "The evenings they spent, sitting on that dock..." You don't need to write: "She remembered the evenings they spent..."
Write things a reader can see, in their mind's eye. Remembering isn't visual, or very active. Neither is thinking, or realizing--or, God forbid, contemplating.
Just put us there. Trust us. We'll get it.
There's a place for thought verbs, but we devalue them by overuse. Same with your favorite words. Be ruthless.
Hasta pronto!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Why Attend the Writers' Summit?

I've written a few blog posts over the years, regarding writers conferences, and why they are important. The Sunriver Writers' Summit is something quite different, and there are compelling reasons to attend this 2-day intensive event, besides the fact that I'll be teaching there with the always-inspiring Judy Reeves and Laura Taylor.

First, the elements that make up a typical conference can make it exhausting or overwhelming—the plethora of workshops to attend, the many things to do and people to meet. At the Writers' Summit, you'll be in one of three intensive tracks (check them out here) for both days. You'll concentrate on that subject—for instance, writing, polishing, and producing a great memoir, in my track—and focus on that exclusively. Obviously, there's a lot to cover within that subject, so I won't let you get bored!

The second reason is that we all get stuck sometimes—whether we're just starting a project and need a push to get us going in the right direction, or have written a manuscript and know we need help figuring out what part of it is a book, or have a book and no idea of how to "get it out there." I hear all the time from writers how they spent years stuck in a creative rut, until the right class, with the right person, at the right time, propelled them to a whole new level.

Another reason is that all of us track leaders have been there, not just writing and editing, but selling and promoting projects and published books. We'll not only share with you the benefit of years of experience, but answer specific questions about your project. (There will also be an appearance by a special guest speaker, in addition to the entertaining and informative Michael Steven Gregory.)

Finally, the Summit will be held in beautiful Sunriver, Oregon—in Central Oregon, very close to Redmond Airport—at the spectacular Sunriver Resort Lodge. Early May is the perfect time to visit this part of the Pacific Northwest, and the Lodge is a perfect setting for creativity.

So, why not take the opportunity for a life-and-work-changing weekend in a gorgeous natural setting?
Dates for the upcoming Summit are May 2-3, 2015. Don't wait—Register now.

hasta pronto—see you soon!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Beauty of a Woman Blogfest 2015: The Language of Beauty

Today's blog is part of the Beauty of a Woman Blogfest 2015; here is a link to the fest page: This is a wonderful event and I hope all my readers will stop by today or sometime this week to participate—there are valuable prizes galore, including one from Yours Truly!

The Language of Beauty
Why is it that we always refer to fabulous women as "beautiful"? Isn't there a better word to honor true inner beauty? Why are words like "strong" and "healthy" and "intelligent" so often seen as a back-handed compliment—the equivalent of the famous blind-date compliment, "she has a great personality"?
I recently saw a Hollywood movie where the female star was introduced to a young girl who would become her adopted grand-daughter. The first thing she said to the girl—who was, of course, very cute—was "Aren't you beautiful? Do you know how beautiful you are?" as if that was the pinnacle of  achievement for a little girl.
We've all heard about the shameful treatment (in a newspaper I won't dignify by naming) of the late, and oh-so-talented author Colleen McCollough, when this line was printed in the first few sentences of her obituary: "Australia’s best selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth."
Wait, what? Seriously?!
What in blazes does being "overweight" or "plain" have to do with this woman's real life—and the pleasure that she brought to millions of readers? Would that this episode had been the first of its kind—we can only hope it will be the last.
But, I admit, I have been too often guilty of referring to my many bright, talented, incredible women friends as "beautiful." Why do I say guilty? Because when I join the legions of people who see women as primarily (sometimes solely) physical packages, to be judged as meeting or not meeting someone's specifications of "beauty," then I'm part of the problem.
Yes, it's hard to see a woman friend's picture on Facebook and not want to say that they are beautiful or lovely to look at, but I'm going to try hard to think of other words to use. I'm going to try to look past their attractive surface and come up with other words—words that pay homage to the many facets of beauty that powerful bright women share. Assets like generosity, loving-kindness, caring, self-respect and respect for others, insight & intuition, and so many others...
Hmm...I may still use the word beautiful when I refer to women, especially those who may not seen by the surface-obsessed world as traditionally beautiful, though—if I feel moved to...Rules, after all, are made to be broken.
hasta pronto!