Posts Tagged ‘english’


In my attempts to be sure the meaning of my words are not lost to the reader, my temptation is to add extra words, rather than subtract them. Examples such as: “the toast was burnt black,” “she raised her eyes up to meet his,” and “the forest trees were thick with greenery,” may not necessarily jump out as being problematic sentence structures, but they are riddled with redundancy.

Added words that replicate the meaning of a single word do not make the point clearer or stronger. This kind of redundancy is called Pleonasm, and it weakens the language~ the opposite effect I’m aiming for. The examples above are the kinds of sentences I look for (and often find), when I am revising my work and looking to cut needless words.

The first example, “the toast was burnt black,” is the kind of Pleonasm I most commonly fall victim to. My  story will go on its merry way, burnt black toast and all, till someone with a sharper eye than my own says, “burnt black as opposed to what? Burnt orange?” And only then will I see my own blunder. Sometimes I will argue, “but this toast is really, really burnt! I need people to know how burnt this toast is. It’s imperative to the story! How can I demonstrate the true realism of a Cocker Spaniel dog owner in the old-time Elizabethan era who is an addicted alcoholic with a drinking problem without showing you how black he burns the toast?” (Did you catch all those redundancies?) But most times, I will see the error and agree. Especially when it’s pointed out to me that toasters were unlikely devices in this particular setting. If the toast is burnt, it goes without saying that it is black… or at least close to it.

The second example is even trickier. “She raised her eyes up to meet his,” sounds perfectly fine to me. However, if something is raised, does “up” need to be added? In this sentence, the word “up” becomes nothing more than white noise. After all, you can not really raise your eyes down, now can you? The sentence, “she raised her eyes to meet his,” may not sound significantly more powerful than the former version of itself, but it is, because after an entire novel of small redundancies, the expressiveness of the language tends to get watered down.

The third example is quite a whopper, yet sadly, I have read (and even written) similar sentences. “The forest trees were thick with greenery,” is problematic for several reasons. First, what else is a forest composed of if not trees? Second, the word “forest” implies many trees, which therefore implies the “thick” in this description. Thirdly, and most redundant of all, what color are most forests if not green? And isn’t greenery what one would expect to find in a forest?

There are a million ways in which we commonly weaken the language by being redundant, and it’s certainly not due to lack of options that we do so. With a language that is so flexible, and gives us such infinitely endless ways of returning back to one place and advancing forward to another, the thing to remember is that excessively repetitious reiteration and wordy verbosity is rarely, in my experience, the best path to take.

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Writing seems to be an awful lot of re-learning things I should already know. I don’t know why I forget some of these basics, but I continually find myself saying, “Oh yeah… I knew that,” and wondering why yet again, I went down a road I should have known went nowhere.

My most recently forgotten guideline of writing is that first drafts don’t have to be perfect. This was the very first thing I ever learned about writing a novel, and I didn’t even realize I‘d been caught in that very counter-productive trap until last week. Initially, I was only aware that it seemed to be taking a lot longer than usual for me to get the story moving. It wasn’t till I asked myself what the holdup was that I acknowledged what was happening and began practicing something I already know: write first, edit later.

I’ve read the left-brain/right-brain theories which suggest that creative writing and technical revising require the use of opposite sides of the brain. Allegedly, to try to utilize both sides simultaneously results in a kind of cerebral squabble that ends up clogging the system and cancelling out both endeavors, like some kind of cognitive conflict of interest. Whether or not this is the truth, I don’t know. But I do know that for me, editing as I’m writing doesn’t work.

In order for me to get to the story written, I need to drop my “good writing” pretenses, ignore the sentences that suck along the way, just keep moving, and save the spit-shining for the edits. I know this… yet until a few days ago, I was spending hours on paragraphs where no more than a few minutes were needed, at least in this stage of the game anyway.

I’ve given it some thought and have narrowed down the culprits which have triggered this first draft amnesia. The main offender is the new standard I’ve reflexively set for myself; entirely my fault, no surprise there. I’m working on my third novel, and with the previous two under my belt, my expectations of myself have been raised. I reason that by now, I should have a pretty firm grip on what I’m doing and shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time searching for the right words, or ransacking the corners of my mind trying to remember some grammatical technicality or another. That with enough practice we will eventually get good enough to throw gold on paper with the first flick of our wrists, requiring no second, third, or fourth drafts, unfortunately, is a myth. At least, I don’t think that will ever happen for me. I’m almost as dim-witted now as I was two years ago, and perhaps, even more so. The ordinances of the English language and the guidelines of good storytelling are vast. When you’re constantly learning new things, the new information can bury the previous knowledge, leaving you completely dumbfounded when you should be on the ball. This is perfectly okay. That’s what re-writes are for.

The second contributor to this roadblock is having an audience. It’s not a secret anymore that I’m writing. My prior novels have passed through the hands of many friends, agents, and fellow writers, and I’m all too aware that this same fate awaits my current manuscript. I have to remind myself that this is a good thing. When people are eager to read your next project, it’s a good sign you’re doing something right. Still, the pressure is unnerving and I have to pretend, on some level, that no one will ever see it, and try to go back to the days of hobbyist writing.

The final villain in this particular drama is my mentor. Oh yeah, I said it. She and I meet twice a week to do critique, and though we’ve been doing this for almost two years, things are different now than they were in the early days. For one thing, I’m no longer new enough at this to play the bright-eyed, “God-Bless-Your-Ignorant-Heart” novice I was once able to pull off. I’ve spent two years under her tutorship and in that time, I’ve learned more than I ever thought there was to know about this craft. I don’t have the luxury of being uneducated anymore, and that kind of sucks.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore my mentor. And it isn’t her Master’s degree in English that intimidates me. Nor is it her years of teaching, or even her owned published books. The problem is that the book she’s currently writing is really damned good. From premise to execution, from characterization to climax, this story casts its golden shadow down hard and heavy on my own project, making it difficult for me to bring her my weekly progress with any kind of pride. But this is good, and here is why: it’s forcing me to get better. Not that I need to feel that I’m a “better writer” than this guy or that girl, but the stakes are higher now, and for the sake of not embarrassing myself, I need to bring some pretty powerful stuff to the table.

There are no doubt thousands of reasons why we slip into bad habits and backslide into unfavorable territory in writing, but if you look at it from different angles, you’ll see that for each new barricade there’s a proportionate opportunity to improve your craft. I think of these stumbling blocks as Fate’s way of upping the ante and lighting the necessary fire under your ass that will get you back in the game with your head on straight and your determination resuscitated and revitalized.

As for forgetting even the basest principles of writing (such as allowing yourself to write bad first drafts), I say forget these things as often as you can, because each time you come back to the basics, you’ll be able to experience the pleasure of seeing your progress in other ways. Back at the very beginning of things is where we see the headway we’ve made. Also, as you “fail” more and more, your armor gets thicker and your tools sharper, so…

Write on… and revise later. Oh, and remember…


If you would have told me twelve months ago where I’d be at the end of 2011, I would have called you a liar, yes… but I also would have kicked you in the shin for getting my hopes up. At this time last year, I had no idea I would be where I am right now and I have to say, it’s a pretty good place. In 2011, my whole life changed. And I even got some writing done.

In June, I quit my job of thirteen years and moved out of the state. I wasn’t happy and I hadn’t been for a very long time. The cause of this unhappiness was not the fault of my former employer. In fact, I worked for a good company. The trouble was, as good of a job as it was, it had nothing to do with me. What I mean is, I think there comes a point in every person’s life when he or she needs to look at his or her vocation and ask, “Am I doing something that only I can do? Is what I’m doing using any of my personal strengths? Are any of my needs being met by this job?” The answer to these questions for me was a very clear “no.” I knew that early on of course, but it took the right set of circumstances and me gathering enough courage to give fear of failure the middle finger before I dared to take the leap. But I finally did. And it was not a mistake.

The month of August I was in New Orleans where I spent several days with David, my best friend from childhood. We explored the entire French Quarter. We went on vampire, ghost and voodoo tours. We met fascinating people from all over the world. We saw boobs. I wore my pajamas down Bourbon Street. It rocked.

From there, I visited my father-in-law in Georgia where we went to several Civil War museums, saw numerous Antebellum-style homes, learned everything we could about the south and the Civil War, and visited the Cabbage Patch Factory (it was amazing… really).

After that, it was off to Myrtle Beach. We played in the ocean, ran in the rain, and went to famous aquariums, zoos and restaurants.

When the vacation was over, I was ready to get settled into my new life in a new location. I found a job that I absolutely love and just last week, I flew home from New York City where we spent several days. With all of that traveling, I still managed to accomplish many of my writing-related goals, too.

At this time last year, my manuscript, The White Room, was in New York being looked at by an agent.  My mentor Kim and I were just getting ready to start on the story we’re now calling Gallery of Dolls. I don’t think I had even gotten the idea for Alejandro, the book I’m working on now, but I’m sure it was somewhere in my mind, bouncing around and trying to take shape.

Presently, The White Room is still looking for a home, Gallery of Dolls is in the final stages of revisions (and will be ready for submissions within the next month or so!), I’m about five chapters into Alejandro, and Kim and I are tentatively plotting a new idea for our next collaborative effort which we’re thinking will be a story involving witchcraft, love, family betrayal and the Black Plague.

Also, whereas the past year and a half has been devoted to becoming educated on the art of novel-writing, proper grammar, and English in general, I think 2012 will bring me a deeper understanding of the business side of the writing equation: the publishing industry. My new job is one that puts me right in the center of all the publishing excitement! On a regular basis, I get to talk to other writers and even book publishers. I am learning which publishers publish what, why the publishing industry is currently so tough, and (tentatively) when and how we can expect it to turn around. My new job  is thoroughly educating me on the thing I love more than anything: writing… that is a perk I did not expect when I took this job.

If I were to try to summarize the last year and somehow label it, I would say 2011 was a year for soul-searching.  Having exhausted my capacity for impotent wish, this year I purposely walked into unknown territory and made life a verb again. I am working on some New Years Resolutions but I’ve learned that goal-setting needs to be tended to far more often than just once a year. That being said, I hope that 2012 is as productive and happy as 2011 was. I hope this for me and for you!

Happy Holidays and keep writing!