What are your favourites?

The Different Lives of Dogs by Ida Waugh

The editing process has shown me that I favour certain words and expressions. I don’t notice them when I’m capturing the story for the SFD. But when I go back and revise, I’m astonished at how certain phrases are repeated many times. Even though many eyes will pore over my book before it goes to print I’m nervous that I’m going to bore my readers by my favouritism.

Word count: 442  Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Because I’ve seen this kind of tic in other writers’ work, I know it happens, even after the most meticulous editing. A couple of years ago I read a memoir where the author loved the verb schlep; he used it in almost every chapter. Recently I read a book by a different author where his characters frequently ‘bellied up’ to the table. The first time I read that it was a unique and fun image. By the third time, it jumped out like someone had underlined it.

I’m not casting stones here – I know all too well how easily my darlings slip into my writing. I let them curl up in front of the warm winter fire and shut the rest out. Sometimes this is the right thing to do. It shows I’m comfortable with my vocabulary as Stephen King (On Writing) encourages writers to be. By sticking with words we know, he says, we find our own voices. 

Then I think of my own exasperation when authors fixate on an odd word like the two examples above and I read my draft one more time. In spite of all the dissenting opinions on this question, I even reach for the thesaurus when I’m stuck. It’s a valuable writing tool. Like any tool though, it has to be used with discretion. Not all synonyms are created equal and I hesitate if I find one that is unfamiliar. If I trip across an unknown word that sounds wonderful, I look it up in several dictionaries. If it means what I need it to, I happily use it. But I have to be comfortable with context. A thesaurus is a tool to keep the engine running, to push through vocabulary block; it's important not to let it misguide me.

Until then, I’ll try to stop myself from incessant use of xxx, xxx, and xxx. I’m not actually sharing my sins because I hope to be free of them before the end of this summer. At least in this manuscript.

Do you have favourite words that crop up in your manuscript no matter how hard you try to banish them? Do you find them for yourself or do you have a critique partner who keeps you honest?

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Image from Wikimedia Commons: Different Lives of Dogs by Ida Waugh

 

Thanks for Judy Mayhew for pointing me to this valuable tool: WordCloud

What lies ahead?

Perseverance of a decapitated tree by Wing Chi Poon

Nobody told me there’d be days like this sang John Lennon. When I looked at what lies ahead of me this week, I was reminded, once again, how little I knew about the publishing industry when I started. Here’s a mud map of what may be necessary, after you’ve polished your novel and got it fit for general consumption:

1. Master the art of writing a query letter, which is infinitely more difficult than writing the book itself. Writer’s Digest offers Ten Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter. Janet Reid’s Query Shark site gives examples of what turns agents off in actual submissions. Then there’s the whole question of whether you should seek an agent or go directly to a publishing house. Di Bates has a good discussion of Literary Agents on her site Writing for Children. One thing is certain, unless you intend to self publish, your query letter will open or close doors for you.

Word count: 474                                                                             Reading time: 1-2 minutes

2. Develop a web presence. Or should you? There’s a question for a search engine! It seems logical that if you want people to be interested in your work, it’s probably best if they can find you. It is sometimes suggested that this step should precede step 1, that agents and publishers are people too.

3. Familiarize yourself with the basics of contract law, or at least develop the tenacity to wade through legal documents. Even if you self publish you need to understand what to expect under the T&C’s (terms and conditions) of your contract.

4. Prepare yourself for editorial input. Allow time for more revision.

5. Before the book is published, assemble a press kit and gear up for what Jill Corcoran calls Book Marketing and Sell-Through.

6. Be prepared for a book launch or even a book tour. Start researching these events well before your launch date. If your publisher doesn't support these events, look for inexpensive ways of hosting your own.

7. Investigate the possibility of a blog tour which is a less physical way of creating buzz for your work but also very time consuming.

8. Between all this – start working on your next novel because if people like your voice, they’ll want more and you’ll want to deliver.

I’m on step four of this list and the road ahead looks exhilarating, to say the least. No one told me it would be so demanding at the outset but I would have soldiered on even if they had. I’m nothing if not perseverant. I’ve had setbacks and false hopes but I keep Winston Churchill’s advice – never never never give up – close to my heart.

What part of the writing journey has surprised you the most? Have you encountered obstacles that you just didn’t anticipate when you started the deceptively simple ambition of telling a story that was burning in your head?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons

What's leaving on that jet plane?

If there is a better summer moment than floating on a freshwater lake, red-winged blackbirds trilling in the background, watching a jet lay its fleeting signature on an azure sky, I can't name it. As I bobbed on Stowel Lake, Salt Spring Island, last weekend it occurred to me that the contrail fading into blue was like so many of my creative sparks: ephemeral and quickly forgotten.

Word count: 378            Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Which brings me to the subject of notebooks: Why have one? Why have only one? What should a notebook include anyway?

I have notebooks in my car, in my purse, in my night stand. They come in all shapes and sizes: small spiral ones that fit in the palm of my hand, efficient steno pads, beautifully bound journals with elegant covers, and binder-sized exercise notebooks, one (at least) for each novel. There’s an electronic notepad in my iPhone with a whole raft of entries: song lyrics that inspired, conversations I’ve eavesdropped on, details of the sounds and smells on a wharf on a chilly spring morning.

My physical notebooks have lots of words. They are a shotgun approach to ideas and experiences, scribbled down in passing moments. They also house a few of my rough drawings, along with pictures, cartoons, and quotes cut from magazines and newspapers.

Does every entry inspire a story or a scene in my writing? Not by half. But if I don’t capture them as they flash across my mind, they will likely disappear forever.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn. I like to hope that within my copious notes there might be an acorn or two that will lead to my next story or novel. One word or sentence might create a thousand more.

Have you ever had an inspiration make your heart pump at the time it flared into being? Did you forget to write it down, only to have it disappear like contrails on the summer sky? Conversely have you ever scribbled a note only to look at it the next day, now fully awake and/or sober, and wondered what on earth you meant by Marie Antoinette’s dog?

What do your notebooks look like? What do they say about your writing life? Where have they led you?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Contrails_001 by G. Larson

How are your tent caterpillars?

Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. When asked why, he said he rewrote it to get the words right.

Yesterday I walked along a sunny road on the edge of Mount Maxwell. It was bordered by thick rows of enormous foxgloves, some of which towered over my 172 cm / 5’ 8” height. Later, when I mentioned it to my sister, she commented only weeks before when she walked it, she’d had to push her way through all the tent caterpillars.

Word count: 344                                    Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Not long ago my novel Lockdown was in the same state as that mountain trail in the spring: sticky with tent caterpillars. It had been part of me for so long that I was unable to see its flaws. Then I skyped with my editor, Anita Daher and she turned the light on. The spidery webs started to fall away and a few flower spikes nudged their heads into the sunshine. Those blooms only started to open after more rewriting.

The editing process is far from being a pleasant summer’s walk on a favourite mountain trail. It’s more like hiking the same terrain in autumn, winter, spring and summer and contemplating the different perspectives that each rewrite brings.

I think my novel is getting close to its full glory, although I have a draft or two to run through yet. To help get there, I remember the beautiful flowers that rise out of the caterpillar silk. As I work through the next reiterations, I’ll model my attitude on John Irving’s: I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something.

How many times have you rewritten your latest scene, story, or book? Are you like Hemingway, rewriting the same page thirty-nine times? When someone suggests you rewrite something, do you perceive that as a punishment or as an opportunity to bring the work to greater power and clarity? Are there bright spring flowers poking through the caterpillar plague?

 

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Photos from Wikimedia Commons:

Abstract art in the hedgerow by Penny Mayes

Digitalis purpurea by Nevit Dilmen