Long words

My critique groups often lean on me for using bigger words than necessary. Particularly people who read and adore Hemingway. My weak defense is accuracy: I want the reader to get an exact picture. The response is, “in well-written work, sixty percent of the reader’s vision is what the author wrote; forty percent is drawn from the reader’s own experience.” Now with several years and more than several rewrites under my belt, I understand.

So who had the twisted sense of humor to give an exact definition of ‘fear of long words’ as hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?

Pitch Conference

Ahh, the pitch conference.  Three minutes to explain your darling child of a novel to a polite but dubious agent.  Three minutes for her to ask probing questions that tear it apart.

I enjoyed most of the Writers Digest pitch conference in St. Paul, Minnesota last Saturday.  The classes were more reminders of ideas we writers should always have in our heads than anything new.  Mystery writer Kristi Belcamino reminded us to “get in late and leave early” so that you give the reader the essence of an action, rather than all the steps (hearing the knock, walking to the door, turning the knob).  Set up a ticking clock. (To know that you have to catch a flight to Istanbul is just information.  To know it’s an hour before takeoff and you’re still in the security line raises the stakes.)  This is stuff most writers know, but I, for one, tend to bury important things in prose, then have to trim.

I had some hope of discovering how a self-published work of fiction finds readers.  For all the good ideas, warnings, and suggestions, there was not much there.

Possibly the best takeaway for me was a session in which first pages of novels were read aloud to six agents, who then indicated when they would stop reading.  One of the pages read was from a talented author in my Wednesday critique group. The agents had comments similar to those the critique group had when its members read that first page.  Heartening to hear that the group is on point.  Also very interesting to hear the agents’ take on what works and what doesn’t.  Good writing is necessary, but not sufficient.

In any case, the experience kicked me into yet another rewrite.

The Grammar Question

One of the great advantages my writing groups give me is a breadth of vision about ‘normal’ grammar. I’ve learned to stay in the middle of the grammar continuum, which to me looks like this:

Stuffy <——————————————-> Stupid-boring

It’s pretty easy to stay away from the far ends. I can’t have my characters saying, “There’s just no telling to whom that e-mail was addressed.” Not in 2015. (Well, maybe a stuffy lawyer or professor.) But making a millennial sound natural doesn’t suggest writing ‘like’ several times in a phrase, either.

The difficulty comes when a word or construction is in the process of flux. Do I use my old guy grammar (suspiciously close to the stuffy end of the spectrum) or jump to the painfully colloquial end.  After all, OMG, stuff is changing all the time, Mother Tonguey’know?

This quote from a recent New York Times article causes me immediate pain: “Then he pours the beige beverage into jars and chills them before bringing the containers to work the next day at Metrodigi, an education technology start-up.” (Bold italics mine.)

The Chicago Manual of Style site says: bring; take. The distinction may seem obvious, but the error is common. The simple question is, where is the action directed? If it’s toward you, use bring {bring home the bacon}. If it’s away from you, use take {take out the trash}. You take (not bring) your car to the mechanic.”

The helpful interlocutor on the website notes, “I’m sure some people (here and elsewhere) will think concern about bring/take is pedantic. I have to admit to accidentally mixing them up and getting called out about it.”

The writing groups (20-somethings to 70-somethings) generally keep me in the middle of that continuum. Beyond that, I guess I’ll just, like, struggle along.

 

Finding the good and the bad in writing

I have been dilatory in my blogging.  All of the reasons are good, but like intentions, they pave the way to hell (in the form of low readership).One of the several delaying factors was the success of my writing groups.  More people, more writing and more time spent critiquing.  I’m learning that bad writing is perhaps more helpful to me than good writing.  Don’t get me wrong. I love reading a beautifully-crafted paragraph or watching another writer’s character do something that explains a volume in a few words.  That writing adds in an ineffable way to my skill as a writer.  But the bad writing, the times when the narrator becomes a blowhard, or the writer has the character tell us something we already knew, or the sentence is just too ugly for a simple ‘k’ in the margin … those are the times I see the same weaknesses in my own writing.So, long story, but the critiquing I’m doing now is doubly time consuming, because I spend as much time fixing the embarrassing parts of my own writing as I do critiquing.Wait a minute.  That’s what it’s all about, right?

Writing Groups II

Shoreacres gave a good and trenchant response to my post on writing groups:  “Here’s the key phrase in your post: …having a good writer look at your own stuff…. ” and goes on to say, “(I)f we’re going to listen to other voices, we need to choose those voices carefully.” See her blog at shoreacres.wordpress.com

As I said in the first ‘writing groups’ post, I’ve joined a couple of groups.  I agree with shoreacres that we need to choose carefully.  The hard part of ‘carefully’ has been, for me at least, not choosing just people whose writing I admire most.  I love fine literary writing, and there are a couple of people in my writing groups who are great wordsmiths.  Their critique of my stuff helps iron out the plodding bits.  But I’m writing genre fiction, so I need to listen to folks whose work I don’t read by choice.  In my quest for ‘comps’, which is to say, writers I can compare my own writing to in queries to agents and publishers, I’ve been reading a lot of mystery/suspense lately.  Right now, I’m reading one by a best-selling author whose writing is considerably weaker than at least four (unpublished) writers in groups I’m in.  The characters are square-chinned, chiseled cardboard, and the prose varies from workmanlike to plodding … but the plot drags me along.  For me, it’s a lesson learned.  Reading other genres exposes me to gag-me-with-a-spoon phraseology, but phraseology that’s appropriate to the genre (we’re talking chick-lit, here), but also to writing that has great mechanics (clear description in the right places, despite the heaving-breast breathlessness).  So, I appreciate shoreacres’ insight and would only add that ‘good’ writers’ groups include all sorts of writers.