Thursday, March 31, 2011

The wrong word

Have you ever used the wrong word? In her book “Reading Like a Writer,” (Harper Perennial, 2006) Francine Prose made an interesting comment about word choice.

“I have heard a number of writers say that they would rather choose the slightly wrong word that made their sentence more musical than the precisely right one that made it more awkward and clumsy.”

I had a difficult time relating to that sentence because it didn’t ring true to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the thesaurus, and use it to help explain my ideas. I enjoy scanning the list of synonyms that pop up on my screen, just waiting to be picked like the kids in gym class lined up against the wall. But if a word changes the meaning, writers have a responsibility so support that change throughout the entire piece. If they don’t, the writing can confuse readers.

I’ve found different, cooler words that I wanted to use more times than I can say. When I did use them, I needed to ensure that the change continued to reflect what I wanted to say. If I didn’t use them, I would keep them in mind for the next time I wrote something similar, so I could put it out there for everyone to see how cool I really was, (oh, if only that were true!). But I don’t think I ever changed a sentence to make the meaning fit the word.

Writing helps me clarify my thoughts. Sometimes I don’t know what I think about a topic until I write about it, which forces me to organize my ideas. When I’m writing, I’m also thinking about what I think, and how I want to say it. It’s all so intertwined that I don’t always know which comes first, the idea or the correct words to express it.

Word choice can clarify meaning, or obscure it. Changing a word because it sounds prettier can have a negative impact on the entire piece of writing, and possibly confuse the readers. Every word is meaningful, and every word counts. Choose your words carefully. And if you can’t fit that really cool word into the piece you’re working on, there’s always next time.

Talk to you soon,


Thursday, March 24, 2011


A big thanks to Dianna Graveman for letting me speak to her Lindenwood University MFA class earlier this week – a great group of women who were fun and interesting! Good luck to all of you in your writing and publishing careers.

Dianna also took the time to write a wonderful article on her blog, to which I’ve included a link:

There is a strong community of writers in and around St. Louis, and I am always impressed by the willingness of that group to share information and support each other. Writing can be a lonely process, and we all face similar issues in our struggle to publish our work. I am thankful to be involved in a group that celebrates success, and encourages each other when we suffer from the lows of rejections.

Talk to you soon,


Monday, March 21, 2011

One True Sentence

But sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. - Ernest Hemingway,
A Moveable Feast

Every writer struggles with writer’s block, and I love Hemingway’s idea of “one true sentence” to help him overcome it. I can’t compare myself to Hemingway, and was never so eloquent as to name my strategy, but I do have a solution that works for me.

When I’m having difficulty deciding where to begin, I look at all the information in my computer file, or in my notebook or some combination of both, and the words and sentences and paragraphs are jumbled together and I don’t know where to begin, and I can’t see how it will all come together, I ask myself a simple question. “What would I tell my best friend about this story?”

That question forces me to focus on the big picture. From there, I might start with a sentence to summarize the main idea or thought. The sentence I write isn’t necessarily great, but once I get something on the screen, I know I have begun, and knowing I have begun puts me in the middle of it, and not on the outside looking in, wondering where to begin.

My sentences may not be as “true” as Hemingway’s, but if I let them do the work, before long I have a finished piece of writing.

Talk to you soon,


Friday, March 18, 2011

Stories are essential

Can you remember the first story you ever heard? How about some of your favorite stories from your childhood? Were they fairy tales? Did they come from a book, or did your parents or grandparents tell you? Most children love to hear stories, as do many adults. In addition to the fact that stories connect us, there a deeper, psychological reason.

There are many theories, but an article titled “The Inside Story” by Peter Guber in the March/April issue of Psychology Today summed it up nicely. He said we respond to stories on a basic human level. Because we are social creatures, stories give us an opportunity to experience events that fall outside the realm of our possibility.

Human beings also are able empathize with characters, which allows us to put ourselves in that position. Empathizing with someone else allows us to create an opportunity for problem solving, or at least the opportunity to ask ourselves how we would react in the same situation. It teaches us about who we are and how we act in the world.

I’ve heard that our brains can’t distinguish fiction from reality, which is why we “feel” the emotions of others on the screen on in a book. I (finally) saw “The King’s Speech,” and became completely uncomfortable watching Colin Firth struggle through the first few minutes of the movie. I felt his pain, and watched other people in the theater squirm in their seats, as well.

Stories enrich our lives by offering us the opportunity to learn about ourselves and the world we live in. Don’t sell yourself short. Mastering the craft is a noble endeavor.

Talk to you soon,


Friday, March 11, 2011

Checking out books

I was checking out a book at my school library last week, and saw the librarian do something I hadn’t seen in a while. He date stamped the “DATE DUE” sheet glued to the first page of the book with “March 24, 2011.” Above that date were four others “May 15, 2006,” Jul 16, 2003,” “Mar 19, 2003,” and “Feb 19, 2003.”

I LOVE seeing those dates. I can’t explain it, but knowing the “history” of the book’s lending experience brings me joy. It doesn’t make sense because I don’t know who had it, but knowing that others read the same book gives me a sense of satisfaction. It’s almost like a secret we share, even though I don’t know who I share it with.

In today’s information age driven by computer technology, (which I fully embrace) I still like this old-fashioned ink-on-paper record-keeping system. Maybe this comes from my experience growing up in the public school system. Every September we would be assigned a textbook that did have the names of those who used it in the previous few years.

I always wondered about those students, and for some reason, looked for names that were familiar to me. The older brother or sister of a classmate of mine would bring secret joy. I guess it all comes back to connections, and that we had a shared experience that brought me closer to understanding what someone else had been through. Or maybe I was just reassured that someone else survived the class and lived to talk about it!

Talk to you soon,


Sunday, March 6, 2011

The other "F" word

When you miss the deadline for a contest you wanted to enter, do you say &*$#@!! Do you swear to yourself under your breath, or do you let them fly and land where they may? Do you believe these are “bad” words, or do you consider them opinion enhancers?

Regardless of where you stand on the great swear-word debate, you’ve probably heard them from those around you, your own mouth, or the mouths of the characters you read or create. What makes them work? Context.

All communication takes place within a context, and what is appropriate for some characters in certain settings will not work in others. A story meant for elementary school children would not be the appropriate place for swear words. A thriller based on a man or woman accused of a crime he or she didn’t commit probably would warrant a few expletives. When used properly, the use of swear words can lend to the feeling of helplessness, frustration, exasperation and/or anger. Within those contexts, the words sound more natural.

Consider all aspects of language when developing your characters. You can distinguish each one through the words they use to express themselves. So even if you’ve never said a curse word in your life, the salty old cowboy you created to save a town from good-for-nuthin’ horse thieves might use a few.

Context is the key.