Am I repeating myself?

When we lived in Australia, megabats used to fly over our house just after sunset. The grey-headed flying foxes had wingspans of up to a metre. In winter they sometimes flew 150 kilometres in a single night to forage for food. We often sat on our deck and watched the aerial parade.

Word count: 450                  Reading time 1-2 mins.

So when I saw dictionary.com’s Word Of The Day on Tuesday, battology, it was love at first syllable. Its meaning (the wearisome repetition of words in speaking or writing) was even more endearing and I’ve claimed it as a personal pet.

My rough drafts are littered with battologies. As I revise, I have to keep my eyes peeled for oft-repeated verbs, adjectives, and sometimes even entire phrases. I’m not saying these sins don’t exist in my final drafts, just that I try to minimize them.

I’ve certainly seen the same problem in other people’s work. I read a novel recently where several of the main characters used the idiom anyways. If only one used that expression, it might have been what Sol Stein calls a character marker. (Stein on Writing, Chapter Five, Markers: the Key to Swift Characterization). That is, it might have revealed that character’s social background and maybe even education level. However, when three characters from different parts of the country and different social backgrounds used it, it became a battology.

Once I read a mystery novel by a well-known English writer who used the word portent and portentous three times in the first fifty pages or so. That’s not an everyday kind of word, at least not in the world of the people being portrayed. It was the author’s vocabulary decorating the story, repetitively.

In the five months I have read two bestselling novels by the same author almost back-to-back. Both of her protagonists used Tom of Maine’s toothpaste. This detail leapt out at me in the first book because I had been looking at that very product in a health store the week before. When the second protagonist used the same brand, it slipped from being a character marker to being author repetition.

These three examples all had the same effect: they made me aware that I was reading someone’s writing. They stopped the story, at least for a minute or so. In the first case, I started speed-reading to get to the end of the book. I no longer believed.

The nightly fly-by of megabats past our Sydney home was comforting in its predictability but that’s not good fiction. Predictability kills a good story. If writers repeat themselves, they can ruin the magic they are spinning.

How do you avoid repetition? Have you ever encountered a battology that threw you out of a story?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Livingston’s Fruit Bat by Ben Charles

Have you crossed the line?

Last week we had a family gathering where relatives who hadn’t seen each other in years shared a meal. Glory stories were told and there was probably a grain of truth in most of them. No constraints like correct grammar or good structure were imposed on the tall tales.

Word count: 477           Reading time: approx 2 minutes

At the writers’ panel last month, a man in the audience asked why editors were even necessary. Why can’t anyone who wants to write, just write? Sylvia Taylor fielded this question from the perspective of commercial publication. She said people’s stories are the rough stones that are dug from the earth. What makes a diamond shine is the cutting and polishing.

Anyone who wants to write can, and often does. There are over 750,000 ebooks for Kindle on Amazon right now. At least some of them, I’m sure, are written by people who just wanted to write without the constraint of an editor or a proofreader.  

At that family reunion two of the people at the table commented that they, too, have written books. Each had written one book that has since been shelved. Completing a novel is a commendable effort; not many people get that far. Still, the first draft is closer to the starting gate than the finish line.

A person doesn’t have to be published to be a serious writer but there are some signs that a line has been crossed between messing about with words and being committed to the long game. Here are some indicators that the writer has passed that point of no return:

  • Writes. Writes a lot. Writes often.
  • Has always written a lot. If not fiction then letters, emails, shopping lists – anything.
  • Cares about the pesky points of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
  • Reads a lot and thinks about what she reads.
  • Is curious about the world at large. May be known to disappear from a party to check out the host’s bathroom cabinet or eavesdrop on the next door neighbours.
  • Makes choices that create time for writing.
  • Keeps learning through books, writing groups, conferences and coaches.
  • Realizes writing may never be a viable way of supporting herself but writes anyway.
  • Sets aside her ego and accepts critiques that will improve her writing.
  • Stands her ground when what she has written is true to her intent.
  • Thinks about her novel the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning.
  • Travels with a pen and paper to collect the precise words of conversations, the exact descriptions of landscapes.
  • Treats other writers with consideration and respect.
  • Considers the first draft of a manuscript the starting point of the work.
  • Knows to step back from the story, reflect on it and let it rest.
  • Writes with passion, succeeds with discipline (Shannon A Thompson).

What would you add to this list? What else tells you someone is serious about writing?

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Frédéric Bazille via Wikimedia Commons: Bazille Family Reunion 1868

Broken any speed records lately?

When Anne Giardini speaks, people listen.

A lawyer (QC) by training (UBC, Cambridge) she has also written a nationally-syndicated newspaper column. Mother of three, she’s president of Weyerhaeuser Canada. She sits on the board of The Writers’ Trust of Canada and the Vancouver International Writers Festival.

Word count: 475                               Reading time: Approx 2 mins.

In her spare time, she reads a book ‘every couple of days’ and, since 2005, has knocked out a novel of her own every three or four years. She is the oldest daughter of the late, great Carol Shields and grew up surrounded by literature. She knows a thing or two. This past week she addressed the North Shore Writers’ Association (NSWA) and kept us pinned to our seats.

Some of the wisdom she offered:

  • If you want to be a published writer, don’t write for yourself. Show your work to friends and neighbours. Workshop it. Get feedback. (My qualifier: be selective whose feedback you take to heart. One reader’s meat is another reader’s poison.)
  • Get out and meet people in the writing community. You never know where your contacts will lead you.
  • Writing is about problem-solving. What problem is your story trying to solve?
  • Put your work out there for external validation. If you’re writing a novel try to write at least one stand-alone chapter. Submit it as a short story to competitions and literary magazines.
  • Read a lot. Write a lot.
  • It’s not too late to start. A sixty-year-old member of Anne’s writing group launched his first book this year.
  • When writing, heed the words of Emily Dickinson, Tell all the truth but tell it slant.
  • Remember Michael Winter’s two dogs in the writing room. One is a puppy, beguiling and playful. The other is a dying dog that needs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The puppy is the internet. The dying dog is your novel. The dying dog needs your attention most urgently.
  • Always read your work out loud before finalizing it.
  • Be vigilant with your time management. Set high expectations. Make choices.

In respect to the last point, Anne admitted she has given up TV, movies, and plays in order to fit writing and reading into her demanding life.

Hearing her formidable schedule made me feel a little weary, which shows how different the writing experience can be. If she and I were in a productivity race, she would run the track a hundred times for every lap of mine. But that’s fine. There is a place in the world for both the tortoise and the hare.  

Where are you in the energy spectrum of writing and life? What have you sacrificed to make time for your craft? Do you look at people like Anne Giardini and think, “I can’t do that so I may as well not try?” Or do you accept yourself and what you can do with philosophical calm?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Three Hermann’s Tortoises by Ranko

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PS Breaking news at the NSWA meeting: Anne made the first official announcement that her family are putting together a book on writing based on Carol Shields’s years as a professor at the University of Manitoba. The book will include personal anecdotes to illustrate the lessons, a la Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (one of Anne Giardini’s favourite books about writing).  

If not now - when?

The sun bloomed glorious and hot last Saturday, giving Vancouver the first sweet kiss of summer. Because the heavy drapes in the hotel conference room were slightly cracked, I saw some of that enticing sunlight. I would have preferred to be hking a forest trail or by the sea but I’d signed up for the SCBWI conference weeks before. I was committed.

Word count: 488                                                                        Reading time: approx. 2 mins.

To me, conferences and writing groups can be a bit of a gamble. At least one conference I went to was a complete waste of time. I’ve been to a writers’ group that was a thinly-disguised tea party. I continue to sign up anyway and remind myself that the doors aren't locked at these things. An early exit is always the fallback plan.

Last Saturday? It paid off:

  • Margriet Ruurs, a committed advocate for literacy, who has travelled around the world promoting this cause, talked about the Write Life. A picture book author, she discussed how the human journey was originally depicted through drawings (25,000 years ago) and how stories are the backbone of human life. She exhorted people to write with passion and with care.
  • Alison Acheson urged her audience to Build Your Own Box. Start with the dilemma of choices and work on the conflicts that arise with constraint. Then compress the story and eliminate the details that don’t work or aren’t important.
  • There was a First Page panel where people submitted the first page of their books and four writer/editors gave feedback.
  • In the session Truth, Lies and Standing on Chairs, Richard Scrimger reminded us there are no rules in writing. Start with a grain of truth. Then use lies to polish that truth and make it sing. The power of a story is in its internal truth.
  • Joan Marie Galat talked about The Business of Getting Published and what happens once the contract is signed.
  • There were portfolio/manuscript consultations, illustrator workshops and pitch sessions.

If I could redo the early years of my writing life, I would start going to these in-person events much sooner. Why didn’t I? I thought I wasn't a real writer because I didn’t have a vast portfolio of work or a commercial publishing contract. What I didn't realize, until I'd been to a few of them, is yes, conferences, book launches, writers' talks and groups do take away from the actual hours available for writing. At the same time, they energize, hone skills, and provide the chance to meet fellow travellers on an often difficult road.

I know now that it is never too soon (or too late) to sign up for the first in-person writers’ conference or group. If you can’t afford the registration fee, some conferences need volunteers to help with their functions. In return, volunteers may sit in on some of the sessions.

Have you been to your first conference yet? What’s holding you back?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Moonlight Castle Series Writers' Talks 2013-02-02

Are you killing a friend?

dandelion.jpg

This morning I found, in the middle of the curly, box leaf, and Redbor kale, a stack of dandelion greens for sale. $1.99 for a small bunch. I stood and calculated the economic windfall that might be reaped from our lawn. There wasn’t enough potential to cover the cost of building a farm-stand out front but I appreciated how one man’s taraxacum is another man’s poison.

So I googled the yellow blossom. Did you know that it was only in the twentieth century, with the invention of the lawn, that dandelions became the enemy of yard-proud people everywhere? In her book, The Teeth of the Lion, The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion, author Anita Sanchez makes the case for the good side of dandelions, including:

  • They are a green and growing first aid kit. For millennia, dandelion tonics have been used to help the body’s filter, the liver, remove toxins from the bloodstream.
  • Dandelions are actually good for the lawn and garden. Their wide-spreading roots loosen hard-packed soil, aerate the earth and help reduce erosion. The deep taproot pulls nutrients such as calcium from deep in the soil and makes them available to other plants. Dandelions actually fertilize the grass and other plants.
  • They are more nutritious than almost all other vegetables grown in a garden. They were named after lions because their lion-toothed leaves healed so many ailments, great and small: baldness, dandruff, toothache, sores, fevers, rotting gums, weakness, lethargy and depression. Not until the twentieth century was the underlying cause of many of these symptoms realized: vitamin deficiencies. Dandelion leaves have more vitamin A than spinach, more vitamin C than tomatoes, and are a powerhouse of iron, calcium and potassium.

Gardeners hate dandelions partly because it’s the thing to do, the accepted attitude, handed down from generation to generation. Does that make it a gardening cliché? Has it lost its relevance from overuse? I agree that dandelions are an aesthetic blight in an otherwise perfect lawn. But is it necessary to flood the world with chemicals to eradicate them?

In developing memorable stories, it’s important to know which dandelions stay and which ones go. Some clichés will never be eradicated. Perhaps Roy Huggins explains it best: The cliché flourishes in the creative arts because the familiar gives a sense of comfort and security.

So maybe not all clichés are wrong in fiction. Could it be that they are a kind of shorthand that acts as a springboard to other creativity?

When you’re writing and editing, do you occasionally let a cliché slip in? Where have you encountered clichés in fiction that seemed to work well, that you didn’t mind reading because the rest of the story was awfully well told?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons by: Atriplexmedia