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Monday, August 27, 2018

How to use the Thesaurus Properly



Some authors say to never use a thesaurus. But guess what? I use one all the time--every week, often every day. Sometimes it's when I'm editing others' manuscripts but always when I'm writing fiction, and on occasion even for my blog posts.

Why do some authors say that?

Because a lot of people in the world use the thesaurus wrong.

At least when it comes to actual writing.

The other day I was gassing up my car while the screen on the Chevron pump advertised to me. One of the features they have at these Chevron pumps is a "Word of the Day" feature--one of my pet peeves that I love to hate. You may have heard me complain about them on here. The "Word of the Day" feature is practically useless.

Why?

Because they almost always highlight words that are useless. They're so rare, so specific, or so convoluted that they actually have no real life (or real writing) value.

Take one I'm looking at on a website right now.

Squiz

Have you ever heard of that word?

I haven't. And I spend A LOT of time with words.

So I click on it.

First thing I notice, this is actually an informal Australian word. That's what it says, right on the page.

So if you are one of my international followers (love you guys ;) you may have heard of this word. But for us here in the U.S. the word is essentially useless to know (unless of course we are working on something that relates to Australia)

If I use it in one of my stories, it'd be like me writing "trainers" instead of "sneakers" when the rest of my story is written in American English. It doesn't work. It doesn't make sense.

Okay, so let's see what the word actually means.

to peer at quickly and closely

Great. (If you are Australian.) But instead of using a word that most of my audience (which is in the U.S.) has never heard of before, why not just use these: scan, notice, consider, study, scrutinize, glance, inspect . . . or peer itself.

Sure, they don't mean the exact same thing, but if needed, I can always add an adverb to capture it.

Angelica quickly inspected the advertisement.

Boom. Done. Now my target audience knows what's going on.

See, a lot of people approach the thesaurus completely wrong: They use it to find rarer and more convoluted words, because they think it makes them sound smarter and like they are an amazingly educated writer. (For the record, I'm convinced this is a normal phase that writers go through when learning to write.)

But writing is a collaboration between the writer and reader. If the author is literally writing for themselves--even into the details--then the story isn't as powerful. This is especially true when handling emotion in your story. Writers writing for themselves will try to write how they feel about that scene to render emotion, but more experienced writers know you need to instead focus on writing what will actually elicit those feelings in the audience.

Here is how NOT to use a thesaurus:


Tiffy is writing a novel.

Tiffy decides to use the thesaurus to come up with "a better word."


Tiffy replaces the phrase "facial expression" with "physiognomy."



And "breakfast" with "jentacular"



No!


This puts the audience at a distance and disadvantage. And it does more than that. It changes the pacing and tone of the passage--and probably in ways you don't want. 


Here is how to use a thesaurus properly:



Max is writing a short story.



Max could use the word "looked,"  but it's a little vague and doesn't capture the moment as accurately.



Max decides to use the thesaurus to find a more accurate word the reader is familiar with and that will convey more than "looked" does.



Max replaces "looked" with "scrutinized."


Way to go Max!




When and How to use the Thesaurus




1. Use the thesaurus when you can't remember or come up with the EXACT word you are looking for.

Hmmmm something like "dance" but more happy . . . --> Prance

2. Use the thesaurus when you are looking for a word that carries a more accurate, more powerful, or more telling connotation or definition. (This can be important in voice, tone, style, humor, subtext, undercurrents, and evoking emotion.)

Fat --> Plump

3. Use the thesaurus to find stronger verbs or to replace an adverb + verb combination (as long as the results aren't unfamiliar to the reader)

Pulled hard --> Yanked 

4. Use the thesaurus to find a shorter, simpler, or more common word when you need to speed up pacing

Galloped --> Ran

5. Use the thesaurus to avoid awkward repetition of the same word.

He looked over and into the look on her face. --> He looked over and into her expression.

6. Use the thesaurus to find the right word for the beat or rhythm. 

[The yellow fog] Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and . . . ?

-->

[The yellow fog] Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.


Different Synonym = Different Meaning


When you run across words that seem to mean the same thing, look up the dictionary definition of each and see how they are different if you don't know. This will help keep the integrity of what you are trying to convey and allow you to write with more precision. Most synonyms are different in some way--which is why they're different words. 

For example, "twilight" is a synonym for "sunset," but they don't actually mean the exact same thing. 

"Sunset" is when the sun is setting. "Twilight" is when the sun has just set

Other times the differences aren't dictionary related, but in their connotations.

"Stubborn" carries different emotional impact than "steadfast," even though their dictionary definitions may be the same. Which conveys the connotation you want? "Stubborn" is often used negatively. "Steadfast" is more positive.

When you first start really trying to write with precision, it can feel like a nightmare. I remember back in college sitting down on a short story assignment and deciding I was really going to pick precise, strong words like my professor talked about. 

It was so hard. 

In fact, for a while, I thought this would be how I always felt writing. 

But it passed and I'm far better off. (And have been using the thesaurus ever since that assignment.)

Wait, some of you might be saying, then doesn't that excuse some of the blunders--because I'm writing so specifically when I say "squiz"???

Like all writing "rules" there is a give and take. "Galloped" is more specific than "ran," however, if pacing is a bigger priority than specificity in that moment, then you sure better go with "ran." 

This was also something I struggled with a bit in college when I took my poetry class, after I'd committed to using precise language. I'd pick the exact right word. I remember in my first critique my professor said she wanted me to pay more attention to sound, beat, and rhythm (I mean, I guess those are sorta important in poetry ;) So sometimes those had to be prioritized over specificity. You might have to compromise in some places. 

Wait, then what's the point in learning all this if it's not set in stone? you might ask. 

Because you can't learn and understand when to do what and how x makes y more powerful until you understand and follow the guidelines.

Now go forth and use the thesaurus properly! (At least when you need it.)



Monday, August 20, 2018

What to Do When You Write Yourself Into a Corner




I actually had a follower ask me about this a while ago, but I was so busy editing and my imagined answers felt so vague that I didn't get around to writing this post (my apologies). Now I have the time, and I'm hoping in the process my answer will sound less vague.

First off, let me say, I've been there. Multiple times. In fact, if you are serious about writing and are committed to finishing a high-quality book, this is probably something you will face time and again.

What do I mean by "writing yourself into a corner?" Basically it's when the story and setup gets stuck--closed in on itself so that it's trapped and you can't find your way out of it. Imagine you have a character gagged and tied and floating in the middle of the ocean, but your character needs to get to the Sahara desert. How the heck is your character going to survive and get there without it feeling unbelievable?

The easiest and perhaps most cliche option is to have someone or something else enter the scene and help fix the problem. Sometimes this works, especially if you have taken advantage of foreshadowing it properly. Other times it can feel like a Dues ex Machina. As TV Tropes explains, "A Deus ex Machina is when some new event, character, ability, or object solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in a sudden, unexpected way." To put icing on the cake, they even go on to say, "It's often used as the solution to what is called 'writing yourself into a corner,' where the problem is so extreme that nothing in the established setting suggests that there is a logical way for the characters to escape."

Great.

Since this is typically considered a storytelling flaw (unless done intentionally for humor or irony), let's talk about alternative solutions.

If you do decide to have an event, character, ability, or object enter the scene and help solve or at least change the situation, it needs to be foreshadowed (but not too heavily) or established, weaved in, and appropriate for the story precisely so it doesn't land on the paper as a Dues ex Machina. Maybe instead of simply having this story element solve the problem, see if it can simply change the situation to then enable the character or setup to have a little wiggle room to discover the solution. It doesn't need to "fix" everything. In fact, it's usually more interesting if it doesn't. Perhaps it can just change the conditions.

The point is, it's usually better if whatever enters the story doesn't solve the huge problems easily. Maybe it helps, but also has a cost, so that having and using it has both advantages and dire disadvantages. You're exchanging one set of problems for another set, in order to get out of the immediate situation.

The other option that might be easier would be to backtrack and change the story so you don't end up in a corner. Maybe the situation doesn't need to be quite so dramatic, wound quite so tightly. Maybe you can tone it down a bit.

But, geez! Gosh! Imagine how cool and intense it would be if you kept it the same? It's so good! Right? I mean, if you've written into a corner, that probably means you have either something big and dire going on, or a lot of complex elements in play, or both.

So that leads me to the third option, which is often most difficult, but can be the most rewarding. From my experience, and from what I've heard from other writers, writing yourself into a corner can be a prelude to brainstorming some of your best story stuff. Because if you can find a believable way out with what's already in play, then dang, you're good, and usually the idea is awesome.

There is really no easy way around the third option. You have to brainstorm like your life depends on it. And I mean, you might have to brainstorm a lot. And it will not be the fun kind either. You will probably want to quit writing at some point. It can be that difficult sometimes. But when you finally find the right solution that actually works, sheesh, it's amazing. However, it might take days or weeks of legitimate apply-butt-to-chair-and-don't-move brainstorming effort, so if you are on a time crunch, this may not be a great option.

In the process, you also want to make sure you don't brainstorm a solution that is so improbable it's ridiculous. Surprisingly, real life doesn't always work off probability, but fiction must in order for it to be believable.

Sometimes you can get out of the corner by using a little of two or all three of the options above. You mostly keep the setup the same, but something small enters and changes the conditions, and maybe you also go back and tweak what came before a little.

Good luck!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Crafting a "Body Language Voice"




So you may have noticed that I didn't put up a new post earlier this week. This is because I'm over at Writers Helping Writers as a writing coach, so instead, I'd like to direct you to their site for this week's tip.

If you like teasers, here's the beginning to get you started.

***

You’ve probably heard about “voice”–that elusive quality that so many editors, agents, and readers are drawn to. Years ago, I did a couple of posts about character voice, arguing that it’s made up of what the character says and how she says it. Each character should have a unique voice. Sure, their voice can have similarities with other voices, but when it gets down to it, they are somewhat different. But you know what else is somewhat unique to an individual? Body language.

So today I’m going to talk about what I refer to sometimes as “body language voice.” The reason this can be tricky is because many writers learning the craft are completely unaware of it. Instead, they simply focus on the emotion they are trying to portray to the audience–which is great, because that means they are trying to “show” how someone feels instead of simply “tell,” but one of the problems that can arise is that the writer gives the characters all the same emotional indicators. Whenever a character is annoyed, he or she rolls her eyes. It doesn’t matter who the character is, it’s the same response. Every character shrugs. Every woman puts her hands on her hips.

Write stronger emotions using your character's "Body Language Voice"To take this to the next level, you should develop a “body language voice.”


. . . You can read the rest here.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Appealing to Wonder Powerfully in the Modern Age



You know that emotion we almost never talk about, unless you work in the speculative fiction industries? That awe-inspiring feeling you get when you see something new and cool and intriguing? It's like the way you felt when you first learned about star life cycles and dark matter or dinosaurs and the extinct Tasmanian tiger or studied how dreams and sleep affect our brains and how there are cases of people being hit on the head and mysteriously being able to speak an entirely different language after.

That's wonder.

But the way we perceive and when we feel wonder today isn't the exact same as it was even one or two hundred years ago, which is why I would argue that appealing to wonder powerfully today can be surprisingly different than it was before.

Some critics in the writing world have a problem with fantasy because "anything can happen." For those of us who read fantasy today, we'd probably argue against that statement. If anything can happen, then, of course, there is no tension. Almost always, fantasy needs to stick to its own rules and boundaries.

When discussing magic systems, Brandon Sanderson talks about how there is soft magic--magic that is not explained--and hard magic--magic that has specific rules. He's really great at explaining when and how to use which successfully, and you can read that article here.

Likewise, I would probably say there is soft wonder, and there is what I'll call medium wonder (I don't think I'd call it hard)

Soft wonder is when something wondrous is nearly completely unexplained or not understood. It might be a magical doorway into another world. It might be creatures we've never seen before. When I think of extreme soft wonder, I think of things like Disney's Alice in Wonderland--where things are strange and fantastical, but we have and get very little knowledge for why they are that way, how they came to be, or how they actually work. This extreme soft wonder was exactly the reason why I didn't like the movie as a child. It all just felt weird and had no reason to it. I know other people who still hate it. To be honest, when watching Alice in Wonderland as a child, I didn't actually feel a strong sense of wonder at all.



Earlier this year, I was watching The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen. If you haven't heard of The Men Who Built America, you're missing out, because the series is freaking amazing (learned more significant information from it than my history classes combined. And when I saw Hamilton, I explained it to family members as The Men Who Built America as a musical, although they cover completely different people of U.S. history.) I like the original series better than Frontiersmen, but anyway . . . I was watching Frontiersman when I learned that Americans were afraid to go out West because of what may be out there, and even President Thomas Jefferson believed that mammoths and dinosaurs roamed those areas. In fact, that was actually one of the reasons he sent Lewis and Clark on the expedition, to look for mammoths. Later, he also sent Clark on another expedition strictly to collect "animal bones" (fossils).

Sounds really silly right? The president thought dinosaurs were in the West? But here's the thing. In modern times, we can't really relate to how people felt about traveling west. Today there is almost no frontier we haven't uncovered, and even those we haven't we still have a whole backlog of science and knowledge and a whole buttload of imagined concepts from movies, books, and video games that we've been exposed to. It hasn't always been that way. For most of the world's history, most people weren't even educated, let alone had access to knowledge at their fingertips. Most people couldn't even read.

In Jefferson's time, the concept that an animal could go extinct had only begun to surface. For most of the world's history, most of the feelings of wonder people felt were soft wonder experiences, because so much wasn't understood, and they didn't have the access to the knowledge we have now. Perhaps back in the day, you could write story after story of purely soft magic--of things just happening magically--and it was wondrous because that's how life was.

If you look at the best-selling, most popular fantasy today, I think you'll find that almost none of them are pure soft wonder. They may have soft aspects, but the fantastic elements are understood, somewhat. I'd argue that this is because the way human beings experience wonder today is different than it has been in times past.

A story with things that just are and just happen over and over isn't actually that interesting because it's so removed. Have you seen movie trailers like that? You know the ones. Where as you're watching the movie trailer, you are seeing wondrous thing after wondrous thing all in CGI glory and you can tell within seconds that the blockbuster-budget movie has no depth because all it focuses on is (what's trying to be) wondrous visuals? And it seems to have no great story or takeaway value? I could name a few specifically, but I think I won't.



We have so much access to knowledge, information, even imaginary concepts and ideas--far more than any civilization before us. We've seen aliens imagined twenty different ways. We've seen twelve different magic systems. We've seen 50 different magical worlds. When and how we experience wonder is different than it has been in times past.

So what makes something feel wondrous to the modern audience? Is it simply bombarding the audience with magical setting after setting, magical creature after creature, spell after spell?

No. Powerful wonder today is most likely to happen when audiences understand the magical somewhat.

Some element of wonder will always be the unknown, unexplained, and unexperienced--that's why it's wonder. But we feel wonder most powerfully when we understand something somewhat. Because that's how we usually experience it today. I mean, is there really anything in CGI that could really wow us anymore? Probably not much. (One I would argue for would be Interstellar because it provided the first ever visual example of what a real black hole looks like--but it was wondrous largely because it was based on actual knowledge and science.)

Sometimes when we are working with fantasy, we think the less someone understands about something, the more fantastical. But that's usually not the case. Furthermore, when we don't understand anything, we don't have enough context to feel tension which makes it difficult to become invested in the story.


Think about it. For us, wonder typically happens at this threshold between what we know (either through knowledge, understanding, or experience) and what we don't know. It's the cutting edge or the gateway to the unknown built off the known. It's something we understand that is somehow broken (the theory of relativity) or something we understand to an extent (dark matter).



An alternative is to work backwards. To encounter something we do not understand or relate to at all, but then to discover what it does relate to, how it works, its "rules" and boundaries, its history or how it came to be. That's what's interesting.

The spells in Harry Potter wouldn't be half as interesting if they didn't have boundaries, if they didn't relate to Latin. Middle-earth wouldn't be as meaningful to us if we didn't have its rich history. His Dark Materials wouldn't have been so riveting if its magic wasn't cutting edge. It's medium wonder.


Something entirely new and never seen before, doesn't need to be understood because it's so different than people's experiences--what they were even capable of experiencing, knowing, and imagining. (Previous audiences)

vs.

Cool concepts, new concepts, twisted concepts, that we understand somewhat. This gives tension. This makes the subject more wondrous for the modern audience.


You'll notice that in Disney's more recent Alice in Wonderland they incorporated more structure and boundaries--making more sense of what before was nonsense. This better suits the modern audience.


At least that is what I'm considering. Remember, today's generation of Millennials is the most educated generation of all time. How people experience wonder today is vastly different than in times past.

Wattpad

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