Vexing Vocabulary

     My daughter recently approached me, a novel in hand, asking what a certain phrase meant. Had the problem involved only a single word, I’d have encouraged her to look it up in the dictionary. We would then have discussed the meaning of the word, making sure she understood it both standing alone and in the context of the sentence.

     In this case, however, she understood the words, but not the phrase comprised of them. I explained said phrase. After a moment’s pause, she turned to face me and said that writers shouldn’t put words in books that kids can’t understand.

     Well, you can imagine what a discussion that started!

     I asked my daughter how she would have become as intelligent as she is had she never come across nor investigated new phrases? I do not believe that writers should abandon a rigorous vocabulary simply because they are writing to children, and I told her as much. Kids are not so delicate as to require familiar words and phrases day in and day out. As a child, I loved coming across new words. It was like meeting a stranger, who then became a friend, who then became a part of my life. I would try to make my new friend part of my lexicon.

     Longer books without higher vocabulary? As a writer, that makes for awfully nondescript writing. As a child, it makes for overly-simple reading.

     I’m willing to bet that within a week, she’ll use that new phrase … and smile while she’s doing it.

Enliven Your Verbs

     Years ago, in journalism school, we students were taught to choose our verbs with great care. Verbs, we were assured, were to express action, but not nuance. For example, we were not to write, “Politician Paul claims to be working on the problem,” or “Politican Paul professes to be working on the problem.” Instead, we were to write, “Politican Paul said he was working on the problem.” The idea behind the less expressive verb was to show the action being taken, but not allow the broadcast or publication of any perceived or actual writer bias.

     The rules have since changed, for a host of reasons, including, I suspect, a desire to give the audience more of a sense of what’s really happening. The journalist with twenty years experience in the market, who knows he’s being snowballed by someone, doesn’t want to become that person’s mouthpiece by reporting action without context.

     It’s also a simple matter of writing more interesting copy. Ninety said’s in one newscast is pretty dull, indeed.

     I was trained to be unexpressive in verb choice and still, generally, use neutral verbs in my news copy. Writing fiction, however, is a whole other matter, and we writers can and should break free from the bondage of boring verbs and pen / scribble / jot / scratch / type verbs that are exact and lively. Like that?

     Great writing comprises great verbs, we know. The verbs should mesmerize us; possess us to feel the emotion and see the imagery that the author exudes. So when creating the story, get yourself a great thesaurus and simply go crazy. Watch your writing burst to life before your eyes. I did.

What’s Your Motivation?

     I read a thread on a discussion board recently that got me chewing over a question. The question was, “What motivates you to write?” I was as intrigued by the answers as by the question.

     Two respondents admitted that ego had something to do with it (I found that to be an enlightening and honest answer), although it was not their primary reason. One liked the idea of being called an “author,” and so, I imagine, she wrote as a romantic ideal. She also liked the challenge of creating something worthy for publication. Another replied that, apparently, nothing motivated her.

     It’s a fair question to ask, why do you write? But how does one give only one answer? I have so many reasons why I write.

     I’d say I write because I enjoy the very process of writing. I love the sequencing of sentences, chapters, and story lines to create a smooth flow. I love developing new and intriguing worlds. I love giving voice to characters who are all my creation. I also write just to get better.

     I don’t write for my ego. After all, writing fiction opens a person up to a whole lot of ridicule if they’re not any good or they write things contrary to the belief system of friends and relatives. Nor does my ego get a boost from simply seeing words with my name attached to it. I’ve written and reported too many stories to walk out of the newsroom impressed simply by authorship. For me, writing a story well is much more impressive than simply possessing the byline.

     None of this is to say my motivation is any better or worse than anyone else’s. Still, it’s an interesting idea to chew on. Just why do writers write? Or do we, like the person responding to the thread, simply need no motivation at all?

Query Letters

     Query letters, like resumes, are some of the hardest documents to write. Not only do they require writers to condense their story and expertise onto one page; they also require writers to do something very few people feel they can do well — sell themselves.

     Self-exaltation, for most of us, is counterintuitive. It’s a clumsy exercise, trying to walk the fine line between promotion and revulsion. On the one hand, if we writers don’t market ourselves, who will? On the other, modesty — and probably reality — dictate that we not present ourselves as the best writers of the generation, especially if our attached chapters will have the agents laughing at our ineptitude (Of course, if we recognized our failings beforehand, we, doubtless, would not have sent out the query to begin with.).

     The query format is simple enough, much like that of a cover letter. We politely explain the aim for our letter, tell exactly what we’re pitching (“My fantasy middle reader of 38,000 words”), and then provide a compelling and pithy synopsis. Finally, we explain our credentials or previous successes, offer a method of communication (email address or phone), and then thank the reader for his time. Oh, how easy I’ve made it sound. In reality, a good query letter is an arduous task, but one that can fling open many doors.

     The rejection / acceptance letter is so much easier! One or two lines. Changing futures. But we all knew this — the number of words doesn’t make the difference. The impact is in the message. Poor agents. I almost feel sorry for them. We writers get a whole page to deliver our message, while they only get a fraction…

One Hundred Pages or One Hundred Seconds?

     There are a lot of ways to tell a story. You can write reams and reams of text. You can condense to single lines of crisp copy. You can use slow, sweeping panoramas or quick, flashing images. You can employ breaks in scenes or breaks in audio. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are people telling it.

     That’s one, and just one, of the many, many reasons why it’s so hard for me to answer whether I like writing long prose more than writing broadcast news. It’s an impossible comparison. They are distinct media with different aims, different audiences, and different results.

     Is covering one hundred pages of paper more fulfilling than using one hundred seconds of America’s broadcast spectrum? Have I cheated the story in choosing one medium over another? Is there not merit in both visions? And, if backed into a corner, why must I declare allegiance to only one? Thankfully, I’m not forced to.

     I am blessed with the opportunity to tell people’s real-life stories in more than one way. I am equally blessed regarding my own make-believe stories. For what better opportunities could a writer ask?

     So when answering the question, “One hundred pages or one hundred seconds,” my answer can only be, gratefully, “Yes.”

A Character’s Voice

     Some books have characters which are so richly developed that, before the ride’s over, you feel intimately connected with them. You can picture them practically standing in front of you. You know their likes and dislikes, their mannerisms, even what they would and would not say.

     That has always fascinated and amazed me; that I could say, in my mind, “No! Juan would never do that! How could his friends think he would?” The author did a great job developing that character.

     I’ve found that I only come close to that when I take enough time to fully think the character through in my head. Sounds obvious, I’ll admit, but sometimes you just want to delve into the story and you don’t give your character a chance to “breathe” and fully come into being. I suppose you could say characters need time to grow into their own, and we need to be patient enough to let it happen.

Identifying the Market

     As I’d gone through the process of thinking about, and then writing, stories over the years, I’d asked myself the question many agents and publishers say that authors are to consider: “Where does your work fit in the market?”

     Many books / websites / interviews from these professionals and many trade discussion boards assure authors that this is something all writers are supposed to think about, especially if they hope to get their work published by a publishing house. Authors are supposed to identify the single genre of their work, understand the demand (or lack thereof) for that work, and then associate their work with other works already on the shelf.

     I once found myself troubled with those requirements. Yes, authors should be able to determine such basics as the genre, I told myself; yet, I hated to associate my work with those of others ( “My book falls between This and That on the shelves.” or “It’s a cross between This and That.” ), never mind that those other works obviously passed enough hurdles to actually land on the bookstore shelves.

     It was vanity, I suppose, to not want to label oneself or link one’s work with that of another, even though so very many stories are revisions and offshoots of others — or greatly influenced by them. We just don’t ever want to admit it.

     So I was forced to recognize that even if one didn’t want to stamp a label on her work, it is an inevitable necessity. How is the agent or publisher to know what they’re being asked to consider if the author herself fails to identify her work in a clear and concise manner? They can’t, obviously, without reading it. Therefore, the author would be asking people with very limited time to find the answer on their own without her help.

     Good luck, I figured. The request wasn’t so invasive, after all.


     I had the honor this year of winning the “Best Reporting Award” in the Excellence in Wisconsin Journalism Competition. It is an award given by one’s peers and is, thus, very meaningful for its recipients, myself included.

     Competitions and critiques aren’t always easy to face, we all know. No one wants to be passed over on an award, have their work torn apart, or see an editor slash and burn what you later must agree was worthless text. It’s tough, but I believe there is value in having your peers evaluate your work.

     I’ve had colleagues tell me, in brutal honestly, all the things I could have done better. Happily, I’ve also had some great feedback on my work. I try to remember those nuggets of affirmation.

     Today, I had one of those nuggets tossed my way; only it wasn’t from a peer. It was from a young reader who enjoyed a particular turn of phrase in one of my writings.

     That is another kind of honor that I cherish.

Ahhhh — Formatting

     There is just something so wonderful about formatting a manuscript. I wouldn’t have thought it possible before going through the process. Since then, I’ve found I love it.

     Formatting all those hundreds of pages means I’ve finally hit the final stages. Formatting is making my manuscript presentable for others to judge. I’m making the package pretty.

     To be sure, I understand that formatting is not the most important step; that honor would go toward actually creating a great story. We all know that proper formatting won’t sell an inferior manuscript.

     Still, it’s invigorating to see all that hard work put into a truly professional package that can be shown with pride. Pride. In the end, it’s what the whole “pretty package” thing is all about.

Muse Schmuse

     In classic mythology, the muses were the nine daughters of Zeus, each of whom exercised control over an art. Today, we think of the muse as anything that inspires artists and thinkers in their craft. We, as writers, stare at the large (and ever-growing) blank sheet of paper (or white and vibrating screen) and think blithely to ourselves, “When the muse sings to me, I’ll create works of art the likes of which this tiny world has never seen.”

     Fiddle sticks.

     Writing is about writing. Sitting down and doing it. Right now. With your planned or spare minutes. Filling paper. Putting fingers to keyboard.

     How many great writers have encouraged us aspirants to just set down the story and worry about fixing it later? How many great stories might never have been written if the author had waited for the muse? Many great writers have encouraged novices to simply let the writing flow, neither waiting for inspiration nor stopping to edit. It’s the mental equivalent on vomiting your thoughts all over the place and wiping it clean later. Hmmm, that’s not a pretty thought, is it? Our first writings aren’t all that pretty, either. C’mon, admit it.

     I would propose that this advice should in itself be our muse. We writers should write, even in our random five-minutes free, for years and years, in the hopes that, someday, we’ll get it right.

     Why do I say this? As much for my inspiration as anyone else’s. We writers — well, we humans in general, I suppose — hope for exactitude and perfection so very far ahead of the time needed to achieve it.

     Here’s to shooing the muse! Here’s to covering pages with ink!