Writing Advice

The Thesaurus Is Good, Valuable, Commendable, Superb, Actually

15 April 2019

From The Outline:

As reference books go, the thesaurus, these days, is one step up in respectability from the rhyming dictionary. To use one is to betray something embarrassing about yourself. To be accused of using one is to be accused both of pretentiousness and of using words whose meaning you don’t really know. (For instance: I originally wrote “accused of malapropism” in that previous sentence, but then checked the dictionary and discovered this refers to mistakes based on sound.) One goes to the thesaurus to find, as they say, a “ten-dollar word.”

Perhaps the best example of this sort of condemnation comes from Simon Winchester, the author of a book about the Oxford English Dictionary, who once wrote in The Atlantic that Roget’s Thesaurus “should be roundly condemned as a crucial part of the engine work that has transported us to our current state of linguistic and intellectual mediocrity” and concludes that it provides “quick and easy solutions for the making of the middlebrow, the mindless, and the mundane.” Or, by way of a more recent (and certainly more mild) example, from The Morning News’s “Tournament of Books”: “Milkman seems to be overly occupied with its own style, its difference, and its reliance on a thesaurus…to notice that the poetry to justify that stylistic occupation is simply absent.”

. . . .

As originally conceived, Roget’s Thesaurus was a slightly different sort of book than the kind of online thesaurus one might consult today. It was instead a fairly rigorous if idiosyncratic taxonomy of language. And it was not a book of synonyms, such books already existed. Synonyms, in terms of words that can be completely substituted for each other, are fairly rare. “Inferiority,” “minority,” and “subordinacy” might all be related words, but they carry slightly different meanings. “Sunset,” “dusk,” and “twilight” all encompass roughly the same time of day, but each has a different tone. So Roget called his book a “thesaurus,” or treasury. He was showcasing and organizing language, not simply providing lists of matching words.

. . . .

In Winchester’s article, he notes that one student changed “his earthly fingers” into “his chthonic digits,” which I’d agree is pretty dreadful. But that error is easily corrected, and that student presumably gained the word “chthonic,” which if nothing else is a fun word to know. Just look at it there, announcing itself with an improbable collection of consonants. And if a thesaurus can be a trap for the unwary, who don’t realize the next step after browsing a collection of words is to go look those words up in a dictionary, this, again, seems like a problem with a one-time solution.

But the alternate problem is that people are too afraid to test new words — even words that are correct, but obscure — because they are afraid of seeming foolish and they either stay within the bounds of a safe vocabulary or (if they are a certain business-managerial type) cope by inventing hideous new words. Fear of the thesaurus has unleashed horrors a Chthonic god could only dream of, like synergy and incentivize.

This seems to me to be a worse problem, not only because people do learn by making mistakes, but because the sphere of “correct,” accessible English will only get smaller and smaller.

. . . .

The decline of the thesaurus is similar to the kind of loss that you experience when you visit a digital resource rather than the library. Browsing the stacks, you are struck with the multitude of books within a particular category. You go looking for one thing and come out with the book you didn’t know you were looking for. Much like a thesaurus, somebody often has to teach you how to use the classification system in the library for you to get the most out of browsing there. But what you get out of browsing really is something qualitatively different than you get from searching a library catalog.

Link to the rest at The Outline

Here’s How I Work

27 March 2019

From Nora Roberts via Facebook:

I write every day. It’s just my job, and I’m very fortunate to love my job. Not everyone is half as lucky to be able to make their living doing something they love.

Every day is, at this point in my life and career, mostly a regular work week. I will, if necessary or I just feel the need, put in a few hours on the weekend.

I am disciplined–that’s my wiring. I have a fast writing pace–also just wiring. I was educated (nine year of Catholic school) by the nuns. Nobody lays a foundation of discipline like the Sisters. Trust me on this.

I was raised by parents who instilled, and demonstrated by example, the responsibility of doing your work, doing it well, meeting your responsibilities.

I don’t miss deadlines.

In the normal course of events, I work six to eight hours a day. Some of that is staring into space–writing requires this, or mine does. Some of it’s spent looking stuff up because how do I know until I know? I don’t use researchers because they’d annoy me, want to talk to me, expect me to be able to tell them what I was looking for. And again, how do I know until I know?

I don’t have ‘staff’, which just sound so pretentious to me. I don’t knock anyone for having staff, but I don’t want staff. They would annoy me, want to talk to me at some point. They’d be in my space which includes my entire house. And the land around it. The air.

What the hell would I do with staff? They could open the door for the dogs, I guess, or bring me another glass of water or Diet Pepsi. The trade off would be too great. In My Space. That’s a deal-breaker.

Link to the rest at Nora Roberts-Facebook and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Punctuation, Voice, and Control

24 March 2019

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

In January, while I was preparing to teach a craft workshop here in Las Vegas,  I was happily reading a lovely essay on the comma in the Oregon Quarterly. The essay, titled “For Love of the Comma,” written by Kate Dyer-Seeley, is beautifully done, and as I read, I was thinking of recommending the piece on my monthly recommended reading list—until I hit this:

…I never flinch when editors suggest changes in a manuscript….When my first manuscript went through copy edits, every introductory comma was removed. I made note and intentionally didn’t use a single introductory comma in the next manuscript. But stop the presses! Don’t make assumptions or get attached to the pesky punctuator, because the next copy editor added every introductory comma back in.

Sigh. I wanted to intervene somehow. Because Dyer-Seeley, who writes mysteries as Ellie Alexander, has a lovely voice. That’s clear from her word choice alone.

However, she lets others dictate the most important part of her voice. Punctuation.

Punctuation is the most sophisticated tool that a writer has. The writers with the strongest voices also have the most eclectic punctuation. If you run a grammar checker on a passage from those writers’ works, the grammar checker will light up with “mistakes.” They’re not mistakes. They’re evidence of a writer who knows her craft and knows how to make the best of it.

Punctuation, like words themselves, is a tool for writers to use. And as is the case for any tool, you have to learn how to use it properly before your usage can become more sophisticated.

A lot of you who felt vindicated when I said the grammar checker would light up may now pack that vindication away. Most new writers misuse punctuation terribly. Those writers have no idea where to place semicolons or what an exclamation point does. They don’t know how to use quotation marks properly and would probably get the hives if I tried to explain nested quotation marks.

. . . .

The manuscript you have just finished writing is not your story. Your story lives in your mind. The manuscript is a tool that takes the story from your head and puts it in my head.

The very best writers use that manuscript tool so effectively that readers can actually hear the writer’s voice as they read. That’s why so many readers have a visceral response to writers like Stephen King or Nora Roberts. (Oh, I hate them. They can’t write. Or Oh, I love them. They could tell me stories forever.) That’s why so many English students and unsophisticated writers will complain that certain bestsellers “can’t write their way out of a paper bag.” Those reviewers, students, readers, and writers are all reacting to upper-level voice, without realizing it.

Writing itself comes from the oral tradition. In class, I always tell writers that we’re storytellers first, and writers second. Before the invention of paper and pens, stories only lived orally. A lot of great storytellers only speak their stories to this day. (Listen to stand-up comedians some time.)

Generally speaking, though, writers are introverts. We don’t want to stand up in front of our audiences and regale them with adventures. We don’t care (and might not ever want) to see the audience laugh at our jokes or cry at our tales of woe. We want to tell stories, yes, but we want to do so in the privacy of our own offices. We want others to enjoy the story, but at their own pace, and far away from us.

Hence the manuscript. Which is nothing more than a delivery system.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch


Against Catharsis: Writing Is Not Therapy

22 March 2019

From The Literary Hub:

I heard the boy scream before I saw him. Walking 125th Street, alone, I heard him cry out. Mom, he screamed. Mommy, please. The street was dark; the winter drafts wicked. I spun around to find the boy, no older than six, standing outside a Volvo station wagon, fists banging against the backseat window. Mommy, please. The boy kept pounding, slapping at the glass, his face a crumpled knot of agony, his knees giving out until he dropped to the pavement, begging. A man, or, a silhouette of a man, rushed toward the boy. I’m not sure where the man came from. He picked the boy up in his arms and the boy kicked, flailed, screaming with his little arms reached out for that car, for his mother.

I turned around and kept walking.

*

Throttled, was the word I used when I described the boy’s screams to my therapist. I’d waited a full week to tell this story. I hadn’t even told my fiancée, Hannah, whom I met for dinner just after the incident, and to whom I confide everything. I was throttled, sick, I said. Couldn’t breathe couldn’t think couldn’t help couldn’t do.

That boy at the car, he’d throttled me back in time in a way nothing else had for years. As he pounded on the window, I pounded at a window. As he screamed, I did, too.

Mother, Father, Let. Me. In.

. . . .

It must be so healing to write memoir is something I hear no fewer than a few times a day. It must be so therapeutic, so cathartic. These are the most popular words. The people who use these words mean well (for the most part). The people who say these words to me are saying them because I wrote a memoir about being a child—and now, an adult—on the other side of the glass.

. . . .

Nothing has healed. The glass, still, hasn’t a crack.

The Story is not The Life.

. . . .

Writing, for me, is no catharsis.

Writing is work. Writing is my job. Writing is the only divinity or spirituality I have found, a medium through which, at my best, I can speak through time and space; I can communicate across state lines and oceans, find my stories pressed between the hands of a girl in a waiting room, or the woman on a train, or a grandfather of six reading passages aloud (these are some of the letters I’ve received) and those hands will hold my stories safe.

Art is a superpower that allows creator and consumer to be in dialogue regardless of circumstance or logistics or miles, a shared experience, a third plane found when two people meet by seeing one another through the page (beautifully and more thoroughly described by Alexander Chee in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel). But to render the art, to render the experience, does not, in my practice, involve “bleeding into the typewriter.” It does not entail a writer spilling or spewing the memory onto a blank page, nailing it down, healing. Why not? Because that is literally impossible, and, while I can appreciate the romance of such proposals, the hypothetical possibility of this would not make for effective or moving literature.

. . . .

I am not proposing that we ignore the healing benefits of creation. What I am proposing is that we get real about what it means to render an experience for the sake of art, for the sake of sharing. To craft something and chisel it until there’s room for more than catharsis. What I want is the space for you, as you’re reading this essay, to read these words and supplant your own knowledge where mine breaks, to apply these ideas to your own work and your own opinions and purposes.

. . . .

Documentary photographers are still lighting their shots. They are still choosing just the right angle to allow us—the viewers—to take in the glory of the subject, or the absolute despair. There are other people and other scenes just inches outside of the frame, other ways to focus the lens. The photographer is not choosing the low speed film and wide shot to dupe us, they’re making these choices to show us the truth.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Tips for Writing a Novel

8 March 2019

From The New Yorker:

Write the story that you most want to read. Which, yeah, for the majority of us means a story about a giraffe and a fireman who are best friends, and the fireman hangs out in a tree so that he can be eye-level with the giraffe, and then one day the zoo catches on fire, and the giraffe and the firemen are looking at each other, like, “Oh, no!,” and the fireman is thinking, How do I get down out of this tree to fight the fire?, and then he looks at the giraffe’s long neck, and the giraffe looks at him, and they both grin, like, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?,” and then the rest of the book is a choose-your-own-adventure story.

Nothing kicks ass more than when a character in your novel says the title of your novel. You don’t want your readers to miss this amazing moment, so make sure to set it up such that it’s really obvious that your character is about to say something important. I haven’t read “Hamlet,” but I would bet that Shakespeare probably wrote something like “Mrs. Globe sighed and pushed her spectacles up her nose. ‘Welllllllll,’ she began, very slowly. Then she paused to wrap a scarf carefully around her neck, shook her head ruefully, and, in an important voice, declared, ‘I guess that’s why they named the puppy Hamlet.’ ”

In order to finish your novel in a timely manner, you should set a goal of writing a thousand words per day. But these can’t just be any random words you think of, typed up in a list. I learned that the hard way.

Always write in the third person. The third person is Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve. Every novel must be from his perspective. Even if you want to write a book about baseball or something, you still need to find a way to involve Cain, even if it’s just, like, “One day Cain went to the library and checked out an amazing book about baseball. This is what he read.” And then, after that, just put your whole novel. And, at the end, have Cain close your book and smile, really satisfied, because that will signal to your readers that it was a good read. But don’t have him burst into tears of amazement, because most readers will think, Now, this is just a bridge too far.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

The Art of the Twist Ending

22 February 2019

From Crime Reads:

The word “twist” exerts a strange power over crime fiction addicts like me. Publishers know this all too well, which is why the promise of a twist is often used to advertise books that don’t have twists at all. “You’ll never see the breathtaking twist coming!” screams the press release. Well, no, you won’t, because it doesn’t exist. And so many people think a brilliant resolution is the same thing as a twist. It isn’t. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Expressoffers the most impressive puzzle solution in all of detective fiction. But, however ingenious and surprising, it’s not a twist ending.

So what is a bona fide twist? In my view, it has to be something that overturns or negates an already drawn conclusion or a firmly entrenched and reasonable assumption (Orient Express overturns an unreasonable assumption on the part of the reader, which is why I wouldn’t call it a twist).

Writing a twist isn’t an exact science, but part of what makes the brilliant ones so attractive in fiction is that feeling of having everything you thought you knew reversed, inverted or demolished; the fictional equivalent of being on a rollercoaster that suddenly turns upside down, leaving everything looking and feeling very different for the rest of the ride. And the new picture created by the shake-up of the twist has to be one that makes sense and is not risible. For example, if you find out at the end of the novel that the murderer is not the person whose fingerprints were on the knife, but rather his long-dead second cousin who developed marvelous fingerprint-forging technology unknown to science or the reader—that’s not a twist, it’s a travesty.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

Why You Should Work Less and Spend More Time on Hobbies

11 February 2019

From The Harvard Business Review:

As professionals around the world feel increasingly pressed for time, they’re giving up on things that matter to them. A recent HBR article noted that in surveys, most people “could name several activities, such as pursuing a hobby, that they’d like to have time for.”

This is more significant than it may sound, because it isn’t just individuals who are missing out. When people don’t have time for hobbies, businesses pay a price. Hobbies can make workers substantially better at their jobs. I know this from personal experience. I’ve always loved playing the guitar and composing. But just like workers everywhere, I can fall into the trap of feeling that I have no time to engage in it. As head of demand generation for Nextiva, I have enough on my plate to keep me busy around the clock. I can easily fall into the trap of the “72-hour workweek,” which takes into account time people spend connected to work on our phones outside of official work hours.

When I crash, there’s always the temptation to do something sedentary and mindless. It’s little surprise that watching TV is by far the most popular use of leisure time in the U.S. and tops the list elsewhere as well, including Germany and England.

. . . .

Creativity. To stand out and compete in today’s crowded and constantly changing business environment, organizations need new, innovative ideas that will rise above the noise. I’m tasked with constantly looking for new ways to attract attention from potential buyers. But coming up with a fully original idea can be difficult when your mind is filled with targets, metrics, and deadlines.

A creative hobby pulls you out of all that. Whether you’re a musician, artist, writer, or cook, you often start with a blank canvas in your mind. You simply think: What will I create that will evoke the emotion I’m going for?

It’s no surprise that by giving yourself this mental space, and focusing on feelings, you can reawaken your creativity. Neuroscientists have found that rational thought and emotions involve different parts of the brain. For the floodgates of creativity to open, both must be in play.

. . . .

Confidence. When I face a tough challenge at work and feel stymied, I can start to question whether I’ll ever figure out a successful solution. It’s easy to lose creative confidence. But after an hour of shredding on the guitar, hitting notes perfectly, I’m feeling good. I can tell that my brain was craving that kind of satisfaction. And when I face that work project again, I bring the confidence with me.

It turns out people like me have been studied. In one study, researchers found that “creative activity was positively associated with recovery experiences (i.e., mastery, control, and relaxation) and performance‐related outcomes (i.e., job creativity and extra‐role behaviors).” In fact, they wrote, “Creative activity while away from work may be a leisure activity that provides employees essential resources to perform at a high level.”

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

Why You Should Work Less and Spend More Time on Hobbies

9 February 2019

From The Harvard Business Review:

As professionals around the world feel increasingly pressed for time, they’re giving up on things that matter to them. A recent HBR article noted that in surveys, most people “could name several activities, such as pursuing a hobby, that they’d like to have time for.”

This is more significant than it may sound, because it isn’t just individuals who are missing out. When people don’t have time for hobbies, businesses pay a price. Hobbies can make workers substantially better at their jobs. I know this from personal experience. I’ve always loved playing the guitar and composing. But just like workers everywhere, I can fall into the trap of feeling that I have no time to engage in it.

. . . .

When I crash, there’s always the temptation to do something sedentary and mindless. It’s little surprise that watching TV is by far the most popular use of leisure time in the U.S. and tops the list elsewhere as well, including Germany and England.

But by spending time on music, I boost some of my most important workplace skills.

. . . .

[C]oming up with a fully original idea can be difficult when your mind is filled with targets, metrics, and deadlines.

A creative hobby pulls you out of all that. Whether you’re a musician, artist, writer, or cook, you often start with a blank canvas in your mind. You simply think: What will I create that will evoke the emotion I’m going for?

It’s no surprise that by giving yourself this mental space, and focusing on feelings, you can reawaken your creativity. Neuroscientists have found that rational thought and emotions involve different parts of the brain. For the floodgates of creativity to open, both must be in play.

. . . .

When I face a tough challenge at work and feel stymied, I can start to question whether I’ll ever figure out a successful solution. It’s easy to lose creative confidence. But after an hour of shredding on the guitar, hitting notes perfectly, I’m feeling good. I can tell that my brain was craving that kind of satisfaction. And when I face that work project again, I bring the confidence with me.

It turns out people like me have been studied. In one study, researchers found that “creative activity was positively associated with recovery experiences (i.e., mastery, control, and relaxation) and performance‐related outcomes (i.e., job creativity and extra‐role behaviors).” In fact, they wrote, “Creative activity while away from work may be a leisure activity that provides employees essential resources to perform at a high level.”

So to my fellow professionals, I highly recommend taking some time to keep up your creative hobby. It doesn’t have to be long. A study found that spending 45 minutes making art helps boost someone’s confidence and ability to complete tasks.

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

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