Stop Saying “I Feel Like”

One of the many challenges I face as a beginning writer (I can still claim novice status, particularly when making novice mistakes) is the issue of how temporal to be. “Temporal” often means “temporary.” Who knows how long LOL or awesome will last? And, do you really want to date your writing? Then there’s the more complex issue … vocabulary and usage reflect a character’s expressed personality, which is a function of the time and place. “Cool, daddy-o” doesn’t work in a piece set in the 1890’s. Certainly, leave out y’know, like and other limping conjunctions and fillers that are common in conversation … except maybe occasionally, as linguistic spice.  That part I got.

Less obvious is the subtle change discussed in a New York Times opinion piece,“Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’ ” by Molly Worthen. She notes, “imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates (sic) that ‘I feel like’ became more common toward the end of the last century. In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve … But make no mistake: ‘I feel like’ is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the point simply: ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument.”

So, possibly irritating phrases (such as) “I feel like” don’t get expunged because the help define the characters inner self?  The next big question:  “I feel like” is like fingernails on a blackboard to me, but does it describe a character’s state of mind to my reader?  Am I justifying not including it because I am, after all, an English major living on a higher plane of language?  Is that higher plane really an affectation?

No more questions.  Start, like, writing!

 

 

Creativity and the art of zoning out

There are many prescriptions for creativity. Enough that it’s clear that nobody has come up with a formula that works for everyone. Meditating hasn’t worked for me, because I need my mind to be active. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be distracted by the flow of information and irritation that is everyday life.

For me, the solution is race walking. Yup, that hip-wiggling form of locomotion that looksRace walk great on a young woman and somewhere between odd and hysterically funny when an older, overweight guy does it. (This I know from experience.) The important part for me is that the magic of repetitive movement quiets my mind but allows the cognitive flywheel to spin uninterrupted.

I discovered this when I had my knee scoped a couple of years ago. No race walking for several months. My second novel, which I was rewriting at the time, became mired in bad writing and incomprehensible plot twists. I exercised on the elliptical machine, to be sure; but the gym’s constant noise and intrusive TV monitors blunted my thought process. When I got to the point that race walking was okay again, the novel started sorting itself out.

For me, good writing requires mental solitude, and exercise provides that freedom.

Writing and sculpture

Wood sculptor

Roughing out

My father was a sculptor in wood.  I remember him saying, “The wood has a story.  It’s my job to let it out.”  I was six or seven, but those words have stuck with me.

I have been working with a fine editor (see Kopp Editing Services) on the first part of my second novel.  As I was hacking away at the prose, chopping a sentence here, a participle there, I saw my father working.  His chisel was at first roughing out the block, revealing the grain and density, finding the story.  Maybe because all writers are suckers for metaphor, I realized as I read through the margin notes and suggestions, the first draft is that roughing out.  Rewrite teases out the shape, and editing provides the fine adjustments my father made to his sculpture with the gouges, skews and v-groove chisels that gave the the piece character.

There is something to be said for that metaphor.  When I began my first novel, I thought I would write a draft, then line edit.  (After all, I’m a good writer, I thought.  Got B’s in college from the writing teacher who was reputed to believe, “A is for God, B is for me, and C+ is for the best of the rest of you.”)

Pelican Sculpture

My father saw a pelican in this piece of wood

That first time, I got the same result a woodworker would have gotten by jumping to fine detail before the roughing out was finished.  Now, on the second novel, after more experience and the help of three critique groups, I believe it’s time to take out the gouges and skews.  So I sent the third pass off to my editor.

To Genre or Not to Genre, That Is the Persistent Question

Does one (say, an unpublished author) (say, me) try to conform his writing to the model of a genre? If so, what is the model?

Does my Muse care about genre? Of course not.  She admires Ursula LaGuin, who said Museof genre, “I don’t want to live in some gated literary community just to get respect from the ignorant.”

Of course, my Muse can’t be bothered with piddling matters of commerce and the like. She did not mention that LeGuin presumably made her statement after she was published.

On the practical side of things, I get that you have to be able to describe what you’re writing in a few words. Leading a conversation with “My work is really impossible to classify, a unique blend of realism and fantasy leading to a confrontation between …” gets a polite smile and an invented need to be somewhere else. Quickly. Leading with the same description in a query letter? Fugeddaboudit.

It’s Aristotle’s fault, really. He stamped our pedagogy with the need to classify, and it stuck. We like to put things in well-organized cubbyholes. And really, I understand the need. An agent or publisher needs to know where a book fits. A bookseller (remember them?) needs to shelve it. Not tomorrow, not after 50 pages, but now.

MN Crime WaveThat has led me to try to understand, in depth, the thriller genre I’m writing in and its relationship to others close to it. That quest led me to the Minnesota Crime Wave, three crime writers of serious intent and fine reputation. In particular, there’s a series of public TV programs featuring discussions between the Crime Wave (Carl Brookins, Ellen Hart and William Kent Krueger) and often other writers. Episode 13 defined the Thriller genre better than I’ve seen before, and Episode 6 produced an excellent reading list that will occupy the rest of my summer.

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.

 

The Novel and Budweiser

Word has it that Amazon has taken yet another step in the value chain that is writing. They have the distribution part down pat, and the production part? Well, they have that, too. So where does a restless creative force go next? Pretty obvious: The making of the product, which is to say, the writing.

In the near future, if you’re a hyper-qualified Prime member and you’re knocking around Amazon looking for something to read, you will be able to tell Amazon the genre and the plot elements you’d like and their algorithms will whip up a story for you and drill it right into your Kindle. And you wondered where art comes from.

Now, maybe I’m biased, but that strategy will (of course) work well for Amazon in the short run, but I bet the result will be a Budweiser.

There is a little town in Bohemia called Budvar. Folks have been making beer in BudvarBudvar since before recorded history, and it is good beer. When you’re next in Vienna or Prague, ask for a Budweiser. You will get a beer from that little town in Bohemia, and it will have only a vague resemblance to the Budweiser you can get in the States. The beer from Budvar is the modern version of the beer Budvar has always made, and its flavor is a function of a master brewer’s palate.

When the Budweiser from Budvar arrived in the States, it was probably pretty similar to the delicious stuff that now comes from Budvar. But in the years since, it has been run through consumer testing, the cost accounting department, the advertising department, and so on. The result is essential Crushed Beerbeer. Beer stripped of any taste that might offend. It is light. It is bubbly. It is aggressively anodyne, if that is not an oxymoron.  It is high-priced water. As a result, not surprisingly, a whole new industry has sprung up – Craft Beer, aka beer that tastes like beer.

So, I’m wondering how long it will take for automata to reduce writing to its essential drivel and for Craft Writing – aka Not Drivel – to triumph once again.

Rewrite and Guitar-making: The art of shaving the braces

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 8.30.04 PMWhen a luthier is making the top of an acoustic guitar, he or she is faced with a delicate balancing act: the spruce used for good tops is thin, 1/8” or less. And the tone of the instrument depends on putting enormous tension on this fragile sheet. The top needs support, but too much support deadens tone. The solution: scalloped bracing. The luthier adds braces, then finally shaves away as much as possible, leaving just enough to keep the instrument from collapsing.

So, your point, John?

Rewrite is similar, and it helps me to use the model of the luthier. The first draft is the rough top, braces in the right places (plot elements, characterization and so on). The rewrite scallops the braces, usually removing unnecessary wood so the story can ring true.

I guess it’s possible to torture this simile too much, but the thought helps me through the minutiae – those gentle passes of the draw knife over the brace that give the guitar – and the story – its voice.

Big Words

Last week, I had one of those epiphanies that come when seemingly unrelated events collide and produce insight.  In my case, three events gave me perspective my habit of (proudly) using big words.

The first was wife Beverly chuckling over a John Grisham short story, Fetching Raymond. It’s a wonderfully written story in its own right, relying on big words for humor (and, in the end, sadness).

The story centers on Raymond, a sorry soul on Death Row at Parchman Farm in Mississippi.Parchman Farm  The family fetching him is uneducated, but Raymond has spent ten years with a dictionary, so he lards his frequent letters home with the impressive vocabulary he’s acquired.  On the way to Parchman, the family contemplates one of his letters explaining why yet another lawyer is coming to his defense:

“Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.

“What’s recompense?” she (Inez, his mother) asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.”  Grisham, John (2013-06-17). Fetching Raymond: A Story from the Ford County Collection. Random House Publishing Group. 

Okay, so that exquisite bit of humor built on ponderous writing tweaked me.  Surely, not my vocabulary, though.  Right?  My wife just smiled, which brought on the next act of realization: a vision of sitting long ago in my college writing professor’s office.  He had asked what I was trying to say in a particularly tortured passage.  I explained in much plainer English.  He looked up from the paper, puffed his pipe and said, “Why don’t you just say it that way?”

The last event came at a meeting of a writing group.  Tim, a fine writer, editor by day and thus person one listens to carefully, read out these lines from my work-in-progress, Skins and Bone:

It had started as a simple statement that as a good trader, he was simply trying to do the best for his company. Over a couple of days, it had morphed into a full-fledged tragic exposition. In Ross’s perfervid imagining, the judge would surely understand how Ross’s desire to do good had been taken advantage of by dishonest, ungrateful people.

“Perfervid,” he said.  “Great word, but it drags the reader away from the character who’s speaking and reminds us there’s a narrator.  You don’t want to do that.”  But I love the word, a marvelous conflation by my cousin, Gamble, a consummate story-teller.  You won’t find it in the dictionary, but it has a pretty clear meaning. However, Tim’s right — it’s showing off, and it weakens the passage.

I need to think simple language, or at least not orotund (oops!).

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?