Wednesday, April 21, I will appear on Virginia This Morning. The program airs from 9:00 to 10:00 on WTVR, the CBS affiliate in Richmond. I’ll be talking about writing Dark Harbor.
Dredge up your earliest memories. Choose one that you are sure is your memory, not a second-hand one that you’ve heard about all your life from family members. Examine the memory and try to understand what made it memorable. What was/is its emotional importance. Use that emotional importance as the theme for a story–memoir, fiction, or memoir based fiction.
Think about something you do that you don’t want anyone else to see/know you do. I don’t mean anything illegal, or even immoral. I mean something that’s simply “not done”–even if nearly everyone does it. For example, research tells us that nearly all people pick their noses, and that an astonishing majority of people (at least sometimes) smell their fingers after wiping their behinds. Choose one of these uncomfortable behaviors and then write a story–or at least a scene–in which your character performs the behavior and then discovers that s/he has been observed.
A touch of dialect helps establish voice, and may lend authenticity to the writing. But for the beginning writer, knowing how much is enough is often difficult.
A story studded with apostrophes and phonetically spelled words draws attention to the writing, detracting from the story. Two of the most frequent verbal habits are saying an’ for and and dropping the final g from words ending in -ing. These words occur so frequently that the printed page sprinkled with apostrophes looks odd. Not putting in the apostrophes for dropped letters–for example, simply writing an instead of an’ for and–may actually be confusing.
A better approach is to look for a few places where phonetically spelling dialect makes a difference and drop out all of the others. For example, the difference between boo-kay and bouquet is so subtle that it probably isn’t worth making the reader pause and notice. Instead, rely on vocabulary and grammar to establish voice.
To avoid wimpy writing, attend to the details. I already talked about avoiding weasel words like some, few, or many in favor of specific numbers or quantities. The same applies to vague nouns: flower, tree, shrub, car. Tell the reader it’s a rose, an elm, an English boxwood, a Ford. Consider how to make chair, house, dog, cat, etc. clearer for the reader. In choosing your specifics, choose your details to further plot, character, tone. Build power one detail at a time.
One of the great things about browsing in secondhand bookstores, library book sales–any place that sells old books–is that you come across fascinating volumes by happenstance. One such book is Comfortable Words by Bergen Evans, copyright 1962. This particular find explains such things as why a spiderweb is called a cobweb (because cob is a form of cop which is an old word for spider), and whether demean is a synonym for debase (today, yes; formerly, no). But perhaps the principal value of such a book to writers is that it reminds us of perfectly good, useful words that we seldom think to use–words like gumption, grouse, hassle, and hazard. Get thee to a shelf of old books and browse!
Write because you want to write, because you need to write, because you are driven to write, because when you don’t write you start feeling squirrelly. Don’t write for fame and adulation–because the chances are, you won’t get it. Go to any bookstore and scan the shelves of published authors for names you never heard of. You are not likely to win a Pulitzer or a Nobel Prize for literature. You aren’t likely to make it on Oprah–especially now that she is bringing her show to a close! Even the non-paying literary journals are very competitive.
Botom Line: putting your work out into the world is likely to result in a lot of rejection. Learn to live with it. And keep writing.
If you find yourself stuck–whether at the beginning, middle, or end–try getting unstuck by making a physical change: use pen and paper instead of a word processor; write in a different room; write at a time of day that is not your usual/preferred writing time. Such changes shift perspective and help to create a new view of the work.
List three or more words that, although they sound the same, can mean three or more things. For example teas, tees, tease; to, two, too; bases, basis,basses. Write a paragraph that uses all of the versions of your words.
List three or more words that, although spelled and pronounced the same, have different meanings. For example, tear, crunch, crop. Write another paragraph that incorporates all of the versions of the words chosen.
The purpose of this exercise is to increase awareness of written and spoken words that might–at least briefly–be confused by a character or the reader.