How Many Characters?

In a recent post to an online editors’ group, one editor noted that she was only halfway through a mystery novel she was critiquing, there were already 30 named characters, and the author had just added 4 more. How many is too many? she asked.

Another editor recalled working on a novel that introduced 30 named characters in the first chapter.

dog coming down hill

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based

Hmm, I thought, and went off to count the number of named characters in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Maybe I had too many?

Since midway through the first draft I’ve been keeping a list of characters, mainly so I can keep track of names, siblings, ages, birthdays, anniversary dates, and what they drive. So it wasn’t hard to  come up with a tally of 56 humans and 3 dogs. (One of the latter is currently the title character. He’s safe.)

Is 56 (or 59) too many characters for a novel that in this almost-complete third draft is about 101K words long? Probably 10 or 12 of those named characters are the relatives or friends of more important characters. They’re mentioned in passing or show up in one scene. I would not expect readers to remember their names on a pop quiz.

So how many significant named characters were there? I counted again: 14 or 15. These characters all play important roles in moving the plot and subplots forward. Their choices make a difference. They’re the ones I’ve been getting to know better and better with each draft. When the plot comes to a fork in the road, they’re the ones I turn to to find out what happens next.

Ask me what Wolfie is about and I’ll respond with something like “the rescue of a dog, the rescue of a girl, and how they rescue each other.” From the very beginning I’ve had three characters: the dog (Wolfie), the girl (Glory, who’s in sixth grade), and, since both of them need another rescuer, Shannon (a 50-something woman who lives up the road from Glory).

Shannon is a protagonist in my first novel, The Mud of the Place, so she came with a supporting cast, four of whom play significant roles in Wolfie. My next question was “What do Wolfie and Glory need to be rescued from?”

For Wolfie, this was easy. He’s a malamute. Malamutes generally have a strong prey drive. In this area quite a few people keep livestock and/or free-range fowl. Wolfie needed to be rescued from a home he could escape from with impunity. The scenario I came up with involves nine or ten named characters who disappear off the radar once Shannon reluctantly adopts Wolfie.

Glory’s situation is much more challenging. Shannon senses that something’s not right at Glory’s house, but she doesn’t know what, and Glory (who, along with Shannon, is a point-of-view character) doesn’t have access to some of her own memories. Glory started out with a family: mother, stepfather, and younger half-brother. Who and where was her birth father? I wondered. The answer to this turned out to be very interesting. It also added four named characters to the cast, only one of whom plays a major role.

How to convey Glory’s dilemma when she can’t articulate it and Shannon and others outside the family can’t see it? This has wound up driving the plot and introducing another major character: Amira, the therapist who counsels Glory when she starts seriously acting out in second grade.

It also prompts Shannon to revisit her own past, which was hinted at but never elaborated on in Mud of the Place. As a teenager she fled her alcoholic, often violent family and has had little to do with any of her blood relatives in the decades since. Enter her younger sister, Jackie, now sober and wanting to re-establish contact. Their relatives have names, as do Jackie’s two adult children and ex-husband, but Jackie’s the important one.

Amira and Jackie, both added to serve the plot, have become fully developed characters in their own right. So has Hayden, Glory’s best friend and classmate, with whom she talks frequently at recess, both sitting on the playground swings. Other named characters — town officials, neighborhood farmers, partiers at a retirement celebration — do their bit and then exit into their own (as far as I know) yet unwritten stories.

The big surprise has been Glory’s mother, Felicia. As the story unfolds, Shannon can’t get over how badly she underestimated Felicia. I did too. A bit of advice: Some of your minor or walk-on characters may have more to say than you realize at first. Listen.

P.S. Here’s a good post on managing the character count by editor Marta Tanrikulu, a participant in the discussion I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It specifically addresses fantasy and science fiction, but much of it applies to any kind of fiction, and maybe memoir and other creative nonfiction as well.


Dear Characters: Now What?

It’s been two and a half months since I last posted here. Eek. It’s not because I’ve had nothing to say about “writing, editing, and how to keep going” — it’s more that I’ve had too much. At some point “too much” became overwhelming because I didn’t know where to start.

Sound familiar? You’ve been there before and so have I, so I’m doing the only thing that’s worked in the past: Start somewhere.

Travvy, on whom the title character of Wolfie is based

So I’m closing in on the end of draft #3 of Wolfie, my novel in progress, The writing of draft #3 has deepened the characters, enriched the story, and surprised me quite a few times. I just arrived at the key scene where draft #2 stopped. It’s not the end of the novel, but by the time I got here last time around, I knew I had to let both the characters and the plot develop further before I could see my way forward.

In the eternal debate between “planners” and “pantsers” — those who map out their plots before they even start writing, and those who plot “by the seat of their pants” — I’m somewhere in the middle. I have a general idea of where I’m going. Almost from the beginning I’ve had a final, or near-final, scene in mind. The trick is figuring out how to get there.

Characters are key for me. They drive the plot, but sometimes I have to get to know them better and even nudge them along. When I was doing a lot of community theater, one director repeatedly urged his actors to “make interesting choices.” An interesting choice leads to more interesting choices — the way one billiard ball bumps another and makes it move? Less interesting choices lead to dwindling energy or even dead ends.

In real life I’ll usually choose to avoid conflict. Onstage or in fiction, this can be an interesting choice, but not if you have a whole cast of characters choosing to play it safe.

Is it a selfie when one hand takes a picture of the other hand?

So I’ve arrived again at my key scene. It’s the scene that nearly all the characters have been moving toward through the entire novel. It’s as if the logs and kindling have been laid for a bonfire — but who’s going to strike the match?

As usual at such crossroads, I’ve turned to my fountain pens and started writing in longhand. I’m playing with possibilities. It’s almost like conducting an audition: which character is the most interesting choice, and what interesting choice will that character come up with?

Watch this space!

Skip It, Move On, Come Back Later

I’m forever saying, chanting, and otherwise reminding myself that “the way out is through.” This is true, but often it’s distilled down to “Just do it!,” which can be useful but sometimes isn’t.

Sometimes the way through is circuitous. Sometimes it’s so circuitous that it looks like procrastination, like when you give up in frustration, go for a walk, and come back with an insight that eluded you while you were staring at the screen, or when you take an entire week’s break from the work in progress to do something else, maybe writing-related or maybe not.

So one of my characters — Felicia, the mother of one of my viewpoint characters, Glory — just made a momentous and unexpected discovery. With each draft, Felicia is becoming more crucial to the plot, but she started off as a bit player and I still didn’t know her very well. My hunch was that she’d call Shannon, the other viewpoint character, but I didn’t know what she’d say. So I left a note to myself at that point in the file and went on.

Plenty of writers do this regularly: When a scene isn’t jelling or they need to do more research, they skip over that part and come back to it later. This is far better than getting stalled at the troublesome spot, but I’m not all that good at it. When I leave gaps behind, I feel like I’m balancing on a rickety ladder. Nevertheless, I kept climbing, looking uneasily down at the ground from time to time.

A little while later Shannon was about to fill her friend Jay in on a totally different story and what came out of her mouth was a sketch of a post-midnight call from Felicia. It turns out Felicia was furious, she and Shannon reached a détente, but at the end of the conversation her trust in Shannon was still shaken.

The actual phone conversation remains to be written, but now I know Felicia better than I did before. One reason that the first two drafts of this novel didn’t reach a climax is that much depends on what Felicia does when a major secret is revealed and I didn’t know Felicia well enough to hazard a guess. But now that I know what went on in that phone conversation, the end is getting closer.

Sometimes you can move characters around like pieces on a chessboard. Other times they want a say in the matter. In those cases the way through may be to let them have it, even if you have to wait a bit before you hear what they’re saying.

Y Is for You

Why (Y?) doesn’t “you” begin with U? Why isn’t it spelled “U”? U and I — how symmetrical, how perfect. Twitterspeak finally got it right.

You is the second person. I’m talking to you. You’re the one I’m talking to. You are being talked to by me.

You is the second person. (You are the second person?) The second-person point of view is rare in fiction, unlike the first and third persons (people?), which are all over the place.

I’ve copyedited two novels in second person, both by the same author: Zoran Drvenkar. The first, Sorry, was the first second-person novel I’d ever read and it blew me away. It’s a thriller and as the story coalesced and came clearer I felt pinned to the wall (if you’ve read the book you’ll understand why I shouldn’t have said that) and blinded by headlights at the same time.

Would it have been so riveting in third person or first? I don’t think so.

Drvenkar’s second novel was titled, oddly enough, You. It was good, fascinating, but not as riveting as Sorry, possibly because this time I was wary and less willing to be riveted.

You know, I’d never seriously considered writing in second person before I started this blog post, but now I’m thinking some second-person freewriting exercises might be useful for the novel in progress.

This is Wolfie‘s very first paragraph in second person:

You dash toward the leftmost swing while your friend Hayden dawdles along behind, scoping out the playground action as she walks. Several other swings are free, but the one on the end is yours. By the time Hayden catches up, you have freed your thick nearly black hair from its red scrunchie and are shaking it loose.

Hah. I could get into this.

P Is for Point of View

When you’re blogging A to Z about writing and editing, P, like C, offers a dizzying array of options: place, placement, paragraph, period, periodical, prose, poetry, parallelism, proofreading, page, point of view, parenthesis, person, persona, present tense, past tense, prize,  production, project, projection, picture, photograph, pronoun, pseudonym . . .

Gay Head Cliffs

This is what I see when I think “point of view”: a vantage point from which you can see a lot but there’s a lot you don’t know. These are the Gay Head Cliffs, where a crucial scene takes place late in my novel in progress.

I settled on point of view (POV) because it’s playing a significant role in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Wolfie has two POV characters: Shannon, an artist and graphic designer in her 50s; and Glory, an artistically gifted sixth-grader who loves dogs. I’m writing both in what’s called a limited or close third-person POV, meaning that each character’s scenes are shown through her eyes and first-person pronouns appear only in dialogue.

In omniscient third-person the usually disembodied narrator knows everything, including what’s going on in people’s heads. A couple of times while in Shannon’s head I’ve caught myself writing something that boils down to “Little did she know . . .” This suggests either some form of omniscience or that Shannon is looking back at these particular events from some point in the future.

In a previous draft I started to write Shannon’s first chapter as if she already knew what was going to happen, or at least most of it, but this didn’t ring true to me so I jettisoned this approach. In the novel, Shannon and eventually other characters are feeling their way toward a piece of knowledge — a secret or a mystery, if you will — and because of the nature of that knowledge they can’t afford to be wrong.

“Hindsight is always 20-20,” so the saying goes, and for Shannon to know too much too soon would undercut the uncertainty that is driving the story. The other thing is that I still don’t know how the story ends. If Shannon knows and is holding back on me, I’m going to be pissed.

Only one person knows the secret and he’s not speaking to me, Shannon, or Glory. What Glory knows is buried deep in her subconscious; she has no words for it. Shannon is growing uneasy, but in the absence of clear evidence she fears she is projecting from her own childhood experience and her work as an adult sheltering and advocating for abused women. So without words or clear evidence how do I figure it out and convey it all to my readers?

As it turns out, my two limited-POV characters were giving me clues before I caught on to what they were doing. In giving Glory an aptitude for drawing and an interest in web design, I was cleverer than I knew. Clues appear indirectly in the actions and occasionally words of the characters, but the most direct clues come in the form of images, some created by the characters and some drawn from the story. (For more about where images come from, see my 2014 blog post “Grow Your Images.”)

In writing it so often happens that limitations foster ingenuity. A length limit can impose focus on prose that wants to sprawl. The discipline of rhyme and meter forces the poet to pay attention to the sound and placement of each word, to make each word count. (Prose writers can learn a lot from writing and reading poetry.) And in Wolfie the limitations imposed by the incomplete knowledge of my two POV characters are stretching me as a writer and helping me find new ways to tell a story.

On Second Thought . . .

I started the new year by blogging about the only New Year’s resolution I recall making in my adult life: write every single day until I finished The Mud of the Place, my first novel.

mud-cover-smShortly thereafter it dawned on me that a similar resolution might help me do what i say I’ve been going to do for two or three years now: turn Mud into an ebook. E-publishing was still terra incognita to me in late 2008, which is when Mud came out. I didn’t even get my first e-reader for another three or four years.

Be careful what you write about. It may give you ideas.

I’ve been partly mulling and mostly hiding from this idea for a week now.  Once I started this blog post, it took two days to finish it. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that I’ve only made one New Year’s resolution in my adult life — and I kept it.

I’ve got a theory about why so many people make so many resolutions and why so many of them fail. We pit what our mind thinks we ought to do against what our body is willing to do, and the body nearly always wins. Mind can’t beat body into submission, not for any length of time, because mind needs body’s cooperation to do anything.

Mind also needs body’s cooperation to stop doing something that mind thinks it shouldn’t do. I’ve got a few stories about that. As a chronically left-brain person, I was startled, perplexed, humiliated, and ultimately humbled to learn just how powerless mind was to stop body in its tracks. If you’ve ever dealt with addictive or compulsive behavior, you know what I’m talking about.

My Mud resolution worked because body was involved from the get-go. It was willing to sit down at the computer and open a Word file. At this point mind would realize that its worst fantasies were unfounded, the novel in progress wasn’t crap, and whatever wasn’t working could be identified and fixed.

So I’ve been dancing around the idea of making this new resolution because body knew that mind wasn’t fully committed to the idea of turning Mud into an ebook.  If mind were fully committed, it would have happened already, the way I signed up for the beginning guitar class in November (very scary) and have been practicing ever since.

True to form, I made a good start on the ebook project before I choked. I started researching ebook services. I got an ISBN — Speed-of-C, which published the trade paperback version, was happy to let the ebook sail under its flag. The book was printed from PDFs, so the corrections made in the production stage had to be transferred to the Word file from which the PDFs were made. I did that, then I started cold-reading the Word file straight through.

To my delight, the thing was good. I still liked it. I was still proud of it. But there I stalled, and kept stalling, until a few days ago I got the idea that I could make a New Year’s resolution about this.

So for the last few days I’ve been letting myself think about why my mind might not be quite ready to do this thing. As usual, the reasons were lying around in plain sight. I just had to look at them.

As a former bookseller who knows a few things about publishing, I did not believe that Mud of the Place would make a big or even modest splash in the wider world. I did believe — hell, I assumed — it would receive serious attention on Martha’s Vineyard, which is both where I live and where the novel is set.

It didn’t. Both the two weekly newspapers and the two independent bookstores largely ignored it. (The Vineyard Gazette did assign it to a capable reviewer, who wrote a thoughtful review. One of the bookstores did pay some attention — five years later, and that because a booklovers’ travel group based in Minnesota featured Mud in their two visits to the Vineyard, in 2013 and 2014.)

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it make a sound? If you write a pretty good novel, and no one pays attention, is it worth doing again?

Long story, but to say the least I was skeptical. Mind decided that serious writing was a waste of time. I put it aside. I looked for ways to fill the hole in my life where writing had been: training and competing with my dog, getting more involved with local politics and even running for office, training as a mediator . . .

Meanwhile, body was subtly, sneakily, rearranging my psychic landscape. Almost exactly six years ago, long after most of my friends, I got on Facebook. Loved it. Ever since I read about Margaret Fuller, I’ve fantasized hosting a salon, even though my verbal talents are more literary than conversational. Facebook was interlocking salons, mine and everyone else’s. I wandered from room to room, listening, talking, having a ball — and realizing that I didn’t need the Vineyard newspapers or bookstores to reach an audience.

Maybe a year and a half after joining Facebook, I started From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, my Vineyard blog. Two years after that, I started this one.

Travvy, upon whom the title character of Wolfie is based.

Travvy, upon whom the title character of Wolfie is based.

By then I was writing seriously again. I was even, muses help me, working on another novel. It was, I eventually realized, “all sprawl and no momentum.” It was suffering from “a surfeit of subplots.” By the time I set it aside, however, one of the subplots had coalesced into Wolfie, the novel I’ve been working on ever since (which, by the way, makes excellent use of my detour into dog training).

Like Mud of the Place, the novel in progress is set on year-round Martha’s Vineyard. It involves several of the same characters, about 10 years later. This, combined with my growing awareness of the online audience and e-publishing in general, made me think that keeping Mud alive as an ebook would be a good idea. I started working on it.

Then I choked.

What if the ebook version, like its paperback predecessor, fell in the forest and made no sound? It’s a definite possibility. Could I handle it?

I didn’t know. I still don’t. But I’m making this resolution anyway: Every day I will do something toward turning Mud of the Place into an ebook. “Something” can be as modest as proofreading two pages of the Word file at five minutes to midnight, but I will do something.

Watch this space. You’ll be the first to know when I get there.


Letting Go, with a Safety Net

cut-chapter-4This morning I deleted chapter 4. Selected the whole damn thing and zapped it. The old chapter 5 is the new chapter 4. Viva chapter 4!

When reading through the printout of draft #2, I couldn’t help noticing that chapter 3 segued nicely into chapter 5 and chapter 4 felt like an extended detour. At present Wolfie has two point-of-view (POV) characters. Chapters 3 and 5 were from the POV of the 50-something woman. Chapter 4 was from the POV of the sixth-grade girl.

When the timing is right, the POV switch works. The idea is to switch just when the reader wants to know what the other character is up to. This time it was more like a TV thriller cutting to a commercial in the middle of a high-intensity scene.

Another thing: When I wrote draft 2, chapter 4, I wasn’t a big fan of Felicia, the sixth-grader’s mother.  Dead giveaway: The woman won’t use linguiça in her kale soup because she thinks it’s unhealthy. In my world that’s a deal-breaker. But Felicia has become deeper, more sympathetic. She’s caught in the middle of a difficult situation, but she seems to be on her daughter’s side. So I was more than ready to jettison all evidence that I was underestimating Felicia.

So I did. I jettisoned the whole chapter.

However, I’ve got a safety net: If at some point I have regrets, or a vague hunch that there’s something in old chapter 4 that might come in handy, draft 2 remains on my hard drive, and it includes old chapter 4.

If experience is any guide, I won’t go back, but knowing that I can gives me permission to be ruthless. When revising, sometimes you really do have to be ruthless.

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

Recently I introduced a client to the wonders of Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature. Like many Word users, she wasn’t aware of its wonders. (As a longtime user of Word, I sometimes become so obsessed with its PITAs that I forget how wonderful its wonders are.) With Track Changes you can delete a word, a phrase, a sentence, a whole paragraph and see how your text reads without it. You can flip back and forth between with and without, or leave it to deal with some other time.

You can experiment. You can play with your prose. If ruthlessness is sometimes called for when you’re revising, so is playfulness. Revision is creative work. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Be ruthless. Be playful. Be brave. You can always go back to an earlier version, but if you’re anything like me you usually won’t want to.

Paper Wolfie

Draft #2

Draft #2 is printed on mostly on the back of other writers’ drafts. The green pages are leftover flyers from the Spirituals Choir I sing in. Note the long comment on the right. Those are notes for draft #3.

Yesterday I printed out draft #2 of Wolfie, the novel in progress. At long last I’m ready to embark on draft #3.

I’ve been edging toward this point since early June, ever more slowly, it seems. One of Zeno’s paradoxes has been much in mind — you know, the one that says you will never reach the wall you’re walking toward because first you’ll be halfway there, then you’ll be three-quarters of the way there, then you’ll be seven-eighths of the way there, and so on.

Logic or no logic, math or no math, if you keep walking sooner or later your nose is going to collide with the wall. Work or no work, heat or no heat, I kept writing and I did get to the scene at the end of draft #2.

Which is not the scene that ends the novel. I’ve got two or three or maybe four scenes to go before I get there. I’m standing at the brink of a narrow but deep chasm. Between the tendrils of mist wafting by I can glimpse what’s happening over there but I can’t see it clearly. I need to find myself another crossing point or build myself a bridge.

That’s draft #3. Draft #3 is a daunting prospect because several threads have been growing through the cracks of draft #2 and who knows how they’ll weave together or what else will want to change in the process? Draft #2 is going to tell me all this as I reread it and the many notes I’ve jotted to myself on the journey, some on the computer file, some in my notebooks.

But draft #2 didn’t start talking till I’d printed it out.

A week or so I was reminded of how important the visible, tangible weight of a manuscript can be.  I’d written a scene (in longhand) from one perspective, then stalled. What next? I wondered. So I wrote the scene again from another perspective — an omniscient overview that I haven’t used anywhere else in the book — and what next flowed out of my pen as fluidly as — well, as fluidly as the black cherry ink I was writing in.

I typed both versions into Word, intending to weave them together but wound up staring at the screen with my fingers hovering over the keyboard. Brain freeze. The two versions glared at each other like strangers who don’t want to dance. So I printed them out, and while I read them, page by page, pen in hand (loaded with fiery red-orange ink), they began moving together: this sentence here and that paragraph there and you don’t need this little bit at all . . .

Getting eight or ten pages to dance together isn’t such a big deal. Now I’ve got 466. One of my mantras has long been “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” Draft #2, it’s up to you.

Thanks to writer Glenda Bailey-Mershon, whose recent post about cutting and pasting in her Weaver’s Knot blog helped inspire this one.

Writing as Discovery

I’ve got a new morning ritual. After I light a candle or two — currently it’s a Yankee Candle, because fat candles in glass jars last a lot longer than tapers in candlesticks — I open The Writer’s Chapbook at random and read a couple of passages.

The Writer’s Chapbook is, says its subtitle, is “A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers.” This is true. Organized into a couple dozen topics, the book consists of extracts from interviews conducted from The Paris Review from 1953 onward. Some extracts are aphoristic; others are full-blown anecdotes. It’s like listening in on an intense conversation among extremely accomplished and articulate writers, and because the writers in each chapter appear in alphabetical order, the likes of Anne Sexton, Georges Simenon, and James Thurber may show up on facing pages.

There are two editions out there. I borrowed the 1999 edition from the library and knew almost at once that I had to have it. Turns out it’s out of print and very hard to find: copies on were going for $299 and up, and I dropped out of an auction on when the bidding sailed past $30 — that copy eventually went for $71. With a bit of persistence, I scored a used copy of the 1989 edition for less than $10, including shipping.

So this morning I opened to two pages in the “On Performance” chapter. On the verso (left-hand) page was this, from playwright Edward Albee:

Naturally, no writer who’s any good at all would sit down and put a sheet of paper in a typewriter and start typing a play unless he knew what he was writing about. But at the same time, writing has got to be an act of discovery. Finding out things about what one is writing about. To a certain extent I imagine a play is completely finished in my mind — in my case at any rate — without my knowing it, before I sit down to write. So in that sense, I suppose, writing a play is finding out what the play is.

And just opposite, on the recto (right-hand) page, novelist John Barth was saying this:

I have a pretty good sense of where the book is going to go. . . . But I have learned from experience that there are certain barriers that you cannot cross until you get to them; in a thing as long and complicated as a novel you may not even know the real shape of the obstacle until you heave in sight of it, much less how you’re going to get around it. I can see in my plans that there will be this enormous pothole to cross somewhere around the third chapter from the end; I’ll get out my little pocket calculator and estimate that the pothole will be reached about the second of July, 1986, let’s say, and then just trust to God and the muses that by the time I get there I’ll know how to get around it.

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based but who has his own stories to tell

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based but who has his own stories to tell

Wolfie, my novel in progress, is fast approaching its second birthday. All through the first draft and well into the second, I told anyone who asked “It’s about the rescue of a dog and the rescue of an eleven-year-old girl and how they rescue each other — oh yeah, and the dog is based on my Alaskan malamute, Travvy.”

Then one character told another the tale of how she’d failed to rescue her father, who had been devastated by the shooting death of his three-year-old grandchild. And my protagonist, who as a teenager fled a violently dysfunctional family, gets a phone call from the younger sister she couldn’t take with her. To make it more fun, no one is sure exactly what the girl needs to be rescued from, though it’s pretty clear to all that she needs rescuing.

So yes, Edward Albee: writing this novel is finding out what the novel is. And yes, John Barth, I suspected the obstacles were out there, but until I drew closer I couldn’t see what they were, never mind how I was going to get round them. If I’d thought too hard about it, I would never have started.

But I’m trusting the muses and my fountain pens, and the candle burning on the table to my right, to show me how it’s done.

Trust the pen, and the hand that holds it.

Trust the pen, and the hand that holds it.

How Clear Is Clear Enough?

20151007 blot 2The English language is a mother lode for punsters. So many words and phrases have multiple meanings. Viewed from a different angle, an innocuous phrase becomes hilarious. I love puns.

The very same quality makes English rich with possibilities for ambiguity and confusion. Here’s an example from the scene I took to my writers’ group last night. Shannon and Jackie are doing some sightseeing. Shannon is driving.

“As they drove by the old Keith farm on Middle Road, Shannon pointed out Jackie’s window.”

One group member stalled on “pointed out.” After a moment she understood what I meant, but, she pointed out, “point out” can mean “call attention to” as well as “point to something outside.” (See what I mean?)

At this point, I have a choice: leave it as is or reword it. On one hand, this is not a gaffe that will provoke the reader to gales of laughter. On the other, this is not a sentence that I want anyone to stumble over. Most important, it’s easy to fix. This morning, while reviewing the feedback from my writers’ group, I made a little change:

“As they drove by the old Keith farm on Middle Road, Shannon pointed a forefinger toward Jackie’s window.”

Part of an editor’s job is to misread everything that can be misread. The writer thinks something is perfectly clear; the editor says, “I’m not sure what you mean here.” This is one reason that writers sometimes think editors are a pain in the butt. (Being both writer and editor, I often think I’m a pain in the butt, so don’t feel bad.)

This is also why it’s an excellent idea to have others read your work before you send it out into the world: peers or colleagues, a writers’ group, maybe even a professional editor. At the very least, let it sit for a week or two or three, then read it as if you’ve never read it before. Be warned, though: This takes practice, and it’s never as reliable as having others read it.

Often a reader’s “Huh?” will prompt a rewording that works better than the original. Sometimes you’ll decide to stick with the original, perhaps because it’ll be readily understood by your target audience(s), or perhaps because all the fixes you come up with make it worse. It’s the writer’s call, but writers are usually better off for having some idea of how our writing is coming across to readers.