By the Numbers?

I can tell you I wrote well yesterday morning, that my characters pushed the scene forward with little help from me.

I can tell you that the switch I blogged about a couple of weeks ago in “Course Correction” — setting aside the novel I was working on in favor of one on the back burner — is working out really well.



I can tell you that when I knocked off at 8:50 p.m. I was drifty to the point of disoriented. This is a sure-fire good sign: when I’m absorbed in what I’m writing, it takes a few minutes to come back to earth.

What I can’t tell you is how many words I wrote. This is partly because I was writing in longhand. Reading my scrawly handwriting is hard enough; no way am I going to count the words.

Actually I may have that backwards: I write in longhand so the internal editor can’t second-guess what I’m writing, and so the internal bean-counter can’t count the words. The internal bean-counter wishes I’d stick to Word, which oh-so-helpfully counts the words as I type them. Then the internal bean-counter could rest assured that I was really writing.

When someone crows that she wrote 893 words this morning, or 1,125, or 1,499, my internal bean-counter gets worried. Maybe I haven’t done enough? Maybe I’m not doing it right?

Dear Internal Bean-Counter:

Take a break. Seriously. It doesn’t matter how many words I wrote this morning, or yesterday morning, or in the middle of tomorrow night. If I wrote 893 words yesterday, I may jettison 878 of them today. So how many words did I really write yesterday?

Yours truly,

The Writer

Spilled beans

Spilled beans

Our society loves to quantify. It loves to count and then compare the numbers. I get it: numbers are precise and, well, quantifiable. Real life is messy and hard to pin down. Numbers can be useful. Right now WordPress is telling me I’ve got 313 words on the screen — 320, 321, 322 . . . This is good to know. When the word-counter hits 800, I know it’s time to wrap it up. (Don’t worry: we’re not going there today.)

But numbers are deceptive. They don’t tell us as much as we like to think they do. Polls don’t tell us what people think. The number on the scale doesn’t tell you how you feel. Your word count for yesterday doesn’t mention the breakthrough you had in that floundering scene, or how many words it took to get there.

Creative beans

Creative beans

Don’t worry about the numbers. Get your hand moving across the page, or your fingers moving on the keyboard. See what happens. Your writing will teach you what you need to know. Numbers are dumb in comparison.

(Word count: 443.)



Needless Words?

“Omit needless words.” You’ve heard it, right? Maybe you’ve had it drummed into your head. It comes from Strunk and White’s famous, or infamous, Elements of Style. (More about that below.)

It’s actually pretty good advice. The tricky part is “needless.” What’s necessary and what isn’t depends on the kind of writing, the intended audience, and what the author had in mind, among other things. Consider, for example, “she shrugged her shoulders.” Taken literally, “her shoulders” is redundant — what else would she shrug? And sometimes “she shrugged” is fine. Other times, the mention of “her shoulders” emphasizes the physical aspect of the gesture, or influences the pacing of the sentence. “She shrugged” and “she shrugged her shoulders” read differently. Ditto “he blinked” and “he blinked his eyes.”

Unless you’re writing technical manuals (do people ever shrug or blink in technical manuals?), you don’t want an editor who lops off “eyes” and “shoulders” just because they’re literally redundant.

However, I do a lot of lopping off when I reread anything I’ve written. Words that served a purpose in the writing may turn out to be needless in later drafts — like the ladder you climbed in order to repaint a windowsill, they can be removed when the job is done. Nearly every draft I write is shorter than its predecessor.

Here’s an example from my novel in progress. Pixel has already been introduced as an elderly dog. Shannon is her owner, Ben their next-door neighbor.

Pixel descended the stairs with a confidence that Shannon hadn’t seen in weeks and thought might be gone for good, then trotted sprily over to Ben. Shannon followed, smiling. “Every summer I think she’s gone over the hill for good,” she said, “and with the first whiff of fall she always seems to drop a couple of years.”

Rereading, my eye balked at “and thought might be gone for good.” Wasn’t that covered by Shannon’s remark “I think she’s gone over the hill for good”? Sure it was. I struck out the needless words:

Pixel descended the stairs with a confidence that Shannon hadn’t seen in weeks and thought might be gone for good, then trotted sprily over to Ben. Shannon followed, smiling. “Every summer I think she’s gone over the hill for good,” she said, “and with the first whiff of fall she always seems to drop a couple of years.”

When I read it over, I didn’t miss those words at all, so the paragraph now looks like this:

Pixel descended the stairs with a confidence that Shannon hadn’t seen in weeks, then trotted sprily over to Ben. Shannon followed, smiling. “Every summer I think she’s gone over the hill for good,” she said, “and with the first whiff of fall she always seems to drop a couple of years.”

When I’m editing, either my own work or someone else’s, I’m always looking for what a workshop leader once called “soft ice” — words that don’t bear weight. What’s soft and what isn’t, and how soft is it, is a judgment call. I may go back and forth several times in five minutes about how soft — how needless — a word or phrase or whole sentence is.

In a current job, a memoir by a very good writer, I came upon this sentence:

As we came around the last curve, we were greeted by a scene of absolute devastation.

No problem, I thought. A couple of sentences later, I slammed on the brakes and backed up. How about this?

As we came around the last curve, we were greeted by a scene of absolute devastation.

I liked it. What the narrator saw was devastation, not a scene; “devastation” is a stronger word. But it’s the author’s call. She can stet “a scene of” if she prefers it that way.

*  *  *  *  *

While writing the above, I went looking for my copy of The Elements of Style. To my surprise, I had not one, not two, but three copies. The little paperback I probably bought myself. The illustrated version, published in 2005, was a gift. So was the decommissioned library edition. The name of the library was effectively redacted, but concealed within the book’s pages were cards from two former colleagues. One of them had given it to me as a parting gift when I left my newspaper job in 1999.

Strunk & White times three

Strunk & White times three

If you Google “strunk and white,” you’ll find that many love The Elements of Style and many, including some heavy-hitting grammarians, hate it. As I flipped through it for the first time in umpteen years, I was surprised by how much useful stuff it has in it. Yes, the tone is often prescriptive: Do it my way or else. No, it doesn’t apply equally to all kinds of writing. But it’s useful.

Strunk and White’s biggest drawback lies not within its pages but within its users. They turn guidelines into godlines, thou shalts and thou shalt nots that must not be disobeyed. This happens to The Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary too, among other reference books, so I know for sure it’s not entirely the book’s fault. When the godliners are teachers or editors, the damage they do can have a half-life of decades.

But this is no reason to jettison the books themselves. Read them. Experiment with their advice. Argue with it. Above all, take what you like and leave the rest.

And run like hell from anyone who insists you swallow them whole.

Guidelines, Not Godlines

I cringe whenever writers and editors start talking about “rules.”

What I really love about these rules is that there's never anyone around to enforce them.

What I really love about these rules is that there’s never anyone around to enforce them.

The real problem, though, isn’t the innocent little word “rules.” It’s that so many of us grow up thinking that rules are not to be broken. If we break them, bad things will happen. We’ll get a big red X on our paper. We’ll flunk the course. People will laugh at us.

Bending the rules is possible, of course, but it carries the tinge of unethical behavior, if not outright sleaziness.

Instead of rules, I think of conventions and guidelines.

Conventions and guidelines are worth knowing. They’re worth knowing well. They help you write better, and — probably more important — they help make what you write comprehensible to others.

But guidelines are not godlines. They are not graven in stone. Lightning will not strike you dead if you adapt them to your own purposes, or ignore them completely. If you ignore them too completely, however, readers may ignore your writing.

grammar policeCome to think of it, this is yet another way that writing and editing are like driving. Some people observe speed limits and use their turn signals because they’re afraid they’ll get a ticket if they don’t. True, they might — but seriously, how many cops are on the road at any one time? Not enough to ticket more than a tiny percentage of scofflaws.

Most of us figure this out pretty damn quick. We observe speed limits less for fear of getting caught speeding and more because they make it easier to control our vehicle. We use turn signals because they reduce our chance of getting rear-ended.

Learn the conventions and guidelines. Respect them. Internalize them. But bowing and scraping and trembling in fear are all optional. Guidelines aren’t godlines. The choices are yours.

Course Correction

Earlier this week I officially set aside novel #2, working title The Squatters’ Speakeasy, to work on novel #3, which doesn’t really have a working title yet. I’ve been calling it “Wolfie” for reasons that will shortly become apparent.

Travvy inspired Wolfie, but Wolfie gets into a lot more trouble.

Trav inspired Wolfie, but Wolfie gets into a lot more trouble.

Over a year ago, Shannon — a protagonist in my Mud of the Place (aka novel #1) and also a major player in Squatters — spotted a dog running through the woods. She followed it, first in her car, then on foot. She caught it as it tried to wriggle through a fence to get to the sheep on the other side, just in time to save it from the owner of the sheep, who was headed in their direction with a rifle in his hand.

I liked the story, not least because the dog, called Wolfie because that’s what he looked like, was clearly based on my Travvy. But despite my best efforts I couldn’t graft it onto Squatters’ Speakeasy. I made a new folder for it, promised to come back, and returned to Squatters.

Squatters was alive, no doubt about that. It sprawled and kept sprawling, tossing up possibilities like — well, like a dog that offers one behavior after another because it doesn’t know what its person wants. I didn’t know what I wanted either.

In early February, I took a break from Squatters to work on an essay about a controversial statue. (See “Get Me Rewrite” for details.) I also started this blog. When I got up in the morning, I couldn’t wait to sit down in my chair and start writing. I finished the essay. I kept going with the blog. Whenever I thought about waking Squatters from its winter snooze, I was overcome by an irresistible urge to play endless games of Spider solitaire.

I’ve been here before. You probably have too. Is this procrastination, pure and simple? I wondered. What’s really going on here?

As I set out on the path that led to The Mud of the Place, looming up ahead was the 40-Page Barrier. It was high. It was wide. It was solid. I’d written essays, reviews, poems, stories, and one-act plays, some of them pretty good and many of them published, but at 40 pages I choked. I was the cartoon character that runs off a cliff and keeps running — till she looks down, realizes the ground has disappeared, and plummets.

Build it scene by scene, I was advised. Brilliant! Scenes were shorter, often lots shorter, than the essays and such that I’d managed to finish. I could write scenes. Scene by scene I left the 40-Page Barrier in the distance. 100 pages, 200 . . .

As I closed in on 300 pages, a supporting character said something I hadn’t suspected. It changed everything. Prospects had been looking grim for Jay, one of my protagonists. With one character’s revelation they improved immensely. OK, I thought. I’ll finish this first draft, I’ll beat the 40-Page Barrier once and for all, then I’ll go back and rewrite.

But I couldn’t. After happily running on air for nearly 300 pages, I looked down and saw how far down the ground was. I didn’t plummet, but I couldn’t keep going either.

I went back and started rewriting. Thanks to my outspoken character, I noticed things and sensed possibilities I’d missed before. The first 300 pages went much faster this time. I charged forward. I completed a draft that needed plenty of work, sure, but it was still pretty good.

Nevertheless, the standard advice of more experienced writers is Keep going, no matter what! With Procrastination fighting for control of my time, I tried to follow it. But Procrastination was gaining the upper hand.

Then a Facebook friend linked to an article that said procrastination wasn’t all bad. An email from a novelist whose list I’d just joined assured me that writing could and should be fun. And a member of my writers’ group mentioned a paper he’d co-authored about working with survivors of incest and other abuse. I had no idea he’d done this. He had no idea this was a emerging theme in the “Wolfie” manuscript.

These had to be omens. Reassured, I’m running with “Wolfie.” But I’m still nervous. The end is a long way off, and the ground is a long way down. Wish me luck.


Grow Your Images

I loved high school English, but after all those in-depth discussions of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Austen, Fitzgerald, and the rest, I went out into the world with some wrong ideas about writing.

I thought images, symbols, and metaphors were like booby traps. Writers embedded them in their stories in order to razzle-dazzle sophisticated readers, and to trick high school students. Why was there a green light at the end of Jay Gatsby’s dock? Why, to drive us crazy, of course.

My English teacher senior year was aware of the problem. She’d ask what an author was trying to do in a particular passage and then, usually after a minute of nervous silence from the class, add, “This is not a trick question.” We didn’t believe her.

For many years, I wrote mostly nonfiction. Nonfiction, I mistakenly thought, was safe from images, symbols, and metaphors. When I started dabbling in poetry, I knew I was in trouble. Poetry is all about images, symbols, and metaphors, isn’t it?

I am not a gardener, but I do have a little garden. It's in an old dinghy.

I am not a gardener, but I do have a little garden. It’s in an old dinghy.

Before long, though, I got it: Images, symbols, and metaphors grow out of the writing. They’re gifts, like sprouts in the spring garden. (Look, look! A simile!) The gardener can nourish them and help them grow, or she can decide the row is too crowded and yank some of the seedlings out. (Metaphor!)

A writer I once workshopped with relayed something she’d heard from a poet she knew: “To be a writer, you have to know one thing well.”

The thing you know well is the soil from which your images, symbols, and metaphors grow. Of course there can be more than one thing, and you can always learn more.

We humans have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Think how often we use them figuratively, as opposed to literally. A sighted person can be blind to her talents. A blind person can have vision. I was touched by his concern. That story smells funny.

When my retina detached, I barely knew what a retina was.

When my retina detached, I barely knew what a retina was.

Almost 10 years ago, the retina in my right eye detached. In traveling back and forth to Boston, I saw firsthand the changes wrought in the wake of 9/11, which I’d managed to mostly ignore for three years because I don’t travel much and don’t have a TV. Over the following years I wrote an essay about the experience: “My Terrorist Eye.” My main images are right there in the title. They were there from the beginning.

You’ve probably heard the saying “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” This is true. It’s aimed at Freudians who want to turn everything of a certain shape into a phallic symbol. At the same time, the cigar may have significance beyond the literal. If one of your characters recoils from the smell of cigar smoke — well, there may be a story behind it.

When the garden gets too crowded, it's hard to see what's going on.

When the garden gets too crowded, it’s hard to see what’s going on.

Any story or poem or essay is bound to have lots of images in it. This is fine. Gardens contain lots of plants, don’t they? All sorts of plants. At the same time, if you’ve got too many flowers growing in a limited space, your readers won’t know where to look. They may miss something that you want them to notice. Keep that in mind when you get down to revising your work.

One last thing to keep in mind: Many, many common expressions are metaphors that have long since come adrift from their literal meanings. This can get writers into trouble. Take the phrase “rein in,” as in “rein in one’s ambition.” I sometimes see “reign in” even in the work of pretty good writers. “Rein in” comes from horsemanship. If you keep horses, reins, and bridles in mind, you won’t write “reign” for “rein.” (Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a reference to “unbridaled passion.” It has possibilities, doesn’t it.)

Metaphors and images can be effectively mixed and matched. They can complement each other or create dissonance. If you use them with care and know where they came from, you won’t inadvertently come up with doozies like “He’s a wolf in cheap clothing” — which also has possibilities, but seriously, you don’t want to do it by mistake, do you?

For a crash course in metaphors, see this post by Richard Nordquist, a retired English professor who is very good at explaining things.


My writing may be a garden, but I'd rather eat tomatoes than words.

My writing may be a garden, but I’d rather eat tomatoes than words.

Author’s Voice

I get nervous when editors talk about “preserving the author’s voice.” There’s often a condescending tinge to it, as if “preserving the author’s voice” means putting up with sloppy writing. It doesn’t. It does, however, require a certain flexibility on the editor’s part. It may mean bending “rules” that aren’t rules at all, like “never split an infinitive” or putting a comma where the Chicago Manual of Style says you don’t need one. This makes some editors, especially copyeditors, uncomfortable. (For a rough breakdown of the “levels” of editing, see “Editing? What’s Editing?”)

Travvy, my Alaskan malamute, had no trouble finding his voice. He's very articulate, but he doesn't know beans about punctuation.

Travvy, my Alaskan malamute, had no trouble finding his voice. He’s very articulate, but he doesn’t know beans about punctuation.

I don’t think “author’s voice” had been invented when I started writing, so I never worried about finding mine.

I hope you won’t either.

If you write a lot, you will develop your own style. All the choices you make — about words, sentence structure, punctuation, and paragraphs, and especially about how to put them together — become your style. If you keep writing, it’ll evolve, depending on what you’re writing about.

Reading is crucial here. Read good writers. Pay attention to how they solve problems. If they’re really good, you might not realize that they ever had a problem. Trust me, they did. They do. They deal with awkward transitions, flaccid sentences, unconvincing characters, and all the other stuff that makes you want to tear your hair out and give up.

Even if you don’t have any problems (for the moment), you can pick up new tricks to try. The more tools you’ve got in your toolkit, the better. Go ahead and try writing in the style of an author you like. Or, maybe even better, an author you don’t like.

If you keep writing, you will develop your own style. You’ll find your voice. Trust me on this. It will happen.

Different kinds of writing do impose different requirements. Sometimes the author’s individual voice takes a back seat to the demands of the job. Think reporting. Think technical writing. If you work in such a field, you’ll develop a style that’s suited to it. Your editors will edit your work with the demands of the field in mind. This doesn’t mean you can’t do other kinds of writing as well. The ability to marshal facts and write clearly can come in handy anywhere.

Some useful tools of the writer's trade. They're here to help you, not drive you huts.

Some useful tools of the writer’s trade. They’re here to help you, not drive you huts.

Yes, you should learn the rules and conventions of whatever language(s) you’re writing in. Contrary to popular belief, these rules were not invented to drive students crazy. They’ve developed over time to facilitate communication between writers and readers. They’re tools. Tools are as important to writers as they are to carpenters and car mechanics. When a writer isn’t comfortable with a particular tool, awkwardness can result.

At the moment I’m copyediting a nonfiction book whose author seems uncomfortable with pronouns. Instead of writing “he” or “him,” “she” or “her,” he repeats the subject’s name — and to avoid repetitiousness he’ll use the first name here, the last name there, and sometimes a nickname if the subject has one. It took me a while to sort out which names belonged to the same person.

If used consciously, this technique can convey nuance and tone. You can refer to a person (including, need I say, a fictional character) by his or her last name in formal situations, then use the first name when s/he’s hanging out with friends. Switching from one to the other will then suggest to your alert readers what mode the person is operating in, what figurative hat s/he has on.

Don’t worry about finding your voice. You’ve already got one. Think of all the ways you use your speaking voice. You can SHOUT. You can whisper. You can sing. You can runwordstogether or you can pause. between. each. one. Addressing a group, you speak more carefully than you do when you’re talking with friends. Your author’s voice can be just as flexible and at the same time just as much you. Keep writing!