Words That Really Piss Me Off

Let me be clear: These are words that piss me off in the narrative voice. In dialogue, all bets are off. The point of dialogue is to imitate real speech, and sometimes that means you use vague or meaningless words, because people really talk that way. But in narrative, clarity and purpose are a must. Any word that fails at or interferes with that gets my blood boiling. [Check out this article for more on the difference between Narrative and Dialogue]

Very: When you think about it, does this word even mean anything? It kind of just sits there and points at the word following it and says "more this". The dictionary defines "Very" as "in a high degree, extremely, exceedingly", but if you feel the need to append this meaning to another word, chances are that word isn't doing its job. I think Robin Williams put it best in the beginning moments of this scene from Dead Poets Society:

The issue he hits on underlies many of these words; they're lazy. Fine in a first draft, but lazy words in a published volume brands you as an amateur.

Interesting: Interesting how? Why? To whom? And what is interesting about this very interesting thing? When you think about it, does the word "interesting" provide any information at all? I submit that it does not. Why tell us something is interesting when you could just as easily show us what is interesting about it?

Beautiful (or anything like it: lovely, gorgeous, etc.): The same goes for this word. Ever heard the old saying "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder?" So saying something is beautiful is not only lazy and meaningless, but depending on the reader's aesthetic preferences, it might be false. Much better to describe a thing or person, and let the reader reach their own conclusions.

Rather/Quite: These words, used for emphasis, have a nearly identical meaning (or lack thereof) to "Very", but I despise them even more because they carry an air of haughtiness that beginning writers--for some reason--think will make them sound sophisticated. Unless they're coming out of the mouth (or from the mind) of a stuck-up Briton, these words are a red flag that the author is trying too hard to sound "author-y".

Terrifying (or anything like it: scary, horrifying): Just like "Beautiful" and "Interesting", this word means different things to different people, and conveys no concrete information. But I find it even more irritating, because fear is one of the strongest emotions available to the human mind. To attempt to capture it with such vague, limp-wristed language is like trying to catch Moby Dick with a needle and thread. (and yet, somehow, I let H.P. Lovecraft get away with it. Guilty pleasure, I guess)

Begin/Start: This one drives me up the wall. Many of my editing clients write sentences like "He sat down and began tying his shoes." Okay, nothing technically wrong with that sentence, but why on God's green Earth do we need "began"? "He sat down and tied his shoes." Doesn't that look the same when you imagine it in your head? The only reason to ever say something "began" or "started" to happen is if you're about to interrupt it. If an action is completed, just show us the complete action. "Begin" stops the action before it starts, as if saying "this happens, but not all the way". What purpose does that serve?

I'm sure I will be adding more to this list at time goes on. I constantly encounter words and phrases that piss me off, and if you've read much of my blogging history, you know I love to rant and rave. So look forward to more!


Setting Goals as a Writer

Every writer has goals, whether they're clear or not.  Most of us probably want to be famous; we want to be the next Stephen King, or the next J.D. Salinger.  Some of us just want to make money.  Some of us don't care about money, we crave recognition.  Some of us just write because we don't know what else to do.

Whatever led you to writing, it's beneficial to have a very clear set of goals.  And there's an old saying that I think applies to writing as much as any other endeavor:

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

[If anyone knows who first said that, I'd really appreciate it if you'd comment below!]

Early in your career, I think it's a good idea to decide exactly what you want from writing.  Whether it's just to finish a novel, or whether it's to pen the next Harry Potter, having some clear idea of your endgame will help you set mile markers along the way.

And don't be afraid to aim high.  It's better to shoot for the stars and end up at the top of a mountain, than aim for the foothills and never get any higher.  So what if you fail to reach your ultimate goal?  You'll probably still get further than you would if you set "moderate" goals.  You can't win if you don't play.

Once you have your ultimate endgame in mind, figure out what it will take to get there.  Do you need a traditional publishing contract, or can you achieve your goals as a self-publisher?  Do you plan to write just a handful of novels, or do you want to be prolific?

I prefer to break by goals down into four time-related categories:

  1. Ongoing goals: These are goals I hope to achieve every day of my career.  Some of them are personal, like going to the gym every weekday.  Some of them are professional, like staying up to date on blogs and social media.
  2. Short-Term Goals: These are goals I envision myself completing within one month to one year.  Typically, this will include whatever project I'm currently working on, and whatever I have lined up next.  For me, freelance jobs will usually be under this category.
  3. Mid-Term Goals: These are goals I envision myself completing within the next five years.  These include larger projects that are still in development, as well as general publishing goals.  For example, I intend to publish the first Jim Frankenstein novel within this period.  In order to achieve that, I need to finish editing it (which is a short-term goal), query agents, and sign a publishing deal.
  4. Ultimate Goals: This is where I put the specific things that equal "success" to me; things I envision myself completing some time before the end of my career.  It's my way of taking a vague goal like "be a successful writer", and parsing out what that looks like to me.  For example, one of my ultimate goals is to publish an anthology of The Complete Jim Frankenstein, which, if all goes to plan, will consist of six novels, ten novellas, and numerous short stories, presented in chronological order.  Another ultimate goal of mine is to develop a body of work that takes place in a single, continuous story universe.
Thinking like this has kept me focused on what I want to do, and helped me set deadlines for myself.  It's another way that staying organized has helped keep me motivated.

It's easy to feel frustrated when your physical and mental writing desks are a cluttered mess.  But if you work on turning yourself and your writing process into a well-oiled machine, you never know what heights you can achieve.


My Top 10 Strategies for Getting Over Writer's Block

Writer's block is pretty much guaranteed to happen to you sooner or later.  A lot of aspiring writers begin their careers with a seemingly insurmountable case of writer's block; they feel crippled by the fear they have nothing meaningful to say.  Even those of us who have enjoyed great success--the Stephen Kings and Ernest Hemingways--feel the block from time to time.

Writer's block is best defined as the inability to initiate what John Gardner calls "The Fictive Dream".  It's that state where your story "writes itself", and you feel like you're just watching it unfold in your head.  It's an amazing feeling--better than drugs, in my opinion (and I've tried drugs).  And just like drugs, its absence can be a painful thing.

The key is to accept that writer's block is inevitable, and prepare for it.

More than anything, I feel that plotting has saved me from writer's block most of the time.  Having some kind of plan supporting you ensures that the dreaded blank page is never truly blank. [Read more on why I think Plotting is great]

But beyond the basic defense of getting organized, how can you fight the frustration?  Below are my Top 10 ways.  I can't promise they'll work for everybody, but they work for me.

  1. Re-read.  Sit down at your computer and take another look at the last 2-3 chapters you wrote, or the last short story you finished.  (If you've never written anything, this method will not work for you).  Re-read everything, editing as you go.  The feeling of improvement over your previous drafts immerses you in your own writing, which in turn helps you kick-start the fictive dream.  This is the most common method I use.
  2. Meditate.  I don't meditate regularly (though I sometimes wish I did), but if I'm feeling particularly frustrated, it helps.  There are numerous types of meditation, but the goal of most is to clear your mind of all thought.  In my experience, it is possible, but it takes time.  When I meditate, I don't fight the inevitable torrent of thoughts, I simply wait it out.  I focus on my breathing, and eventually, my mind is done dumping out all its clutter, and I'm relaxed.  Afterwards, I find that writing is much easier.
  3. Drink coffee. It sounds asinine, but I'm serious.  First off, coffee is delicious.  Second, you shouldn't really call yourself a writer unless you drink lots of it.  Third, caffeine actually enhances neural connections in the brain, which make it easier to think.  So if you're feeling the block, take a moment and focus on a hot cup of coffee.  Not only will it help speed up your brain, but a quiet moment with a cup of coffee is like a mini-meditation.
  4. Blog.  About anything.  Even if it's stupid.  It's a good warm-up--it gets your fingers on the keyboard at least--and it gets you closer to your 10,000 hours.  Even if it sucks, who cares?
  5. Freewrite.  It can't hurt.  And again, it's like a form of meditation, and it gets you closer to your 10,000 hours.  I kind of hate freewriting, because the first few lines are always something idiotic like "I can't write today" or "So here I am, freewriting, hum-de-dum..."  I know it feels stupid.  Do it anyway.  You might be surprised.  And it's not like you're going to show it to anyone, right?
  6. Read.  Books are a great source of inspiration, but don't get too sucked in.  Read a chapter of whatever book you're into at the moment, and pay attention to the rhythm and flow of the author's voice.  Or think about the setting and characters, and let the ideas inspire you.  Reading great books is why we want to be writers in the first place, so hopefully reading will remind you of that.
  7. Find a Writing Prompt.  I tend to dislike writing prompts as starting places for actual stories, but as a form of directed freewriting, I think they can be immensely beneficial.  The internet is replete with these things, and some sites even make a game out of it.  Find a prompt you like, and just go with it, without worrying about the quality of the story.
  8. Edit/Critique Someone Else.  Sometimes, helping a fellow author can be a great source of inspiration.  Maybe one of their ideas will spark something in you, or maybe their struggles will help you see and overcome your own.  The back and forth with another writer can be a real boost to your confidence as well.  We all struggle with the same issues, and sometimes all we need is a little solidarity.
  9. Plot.  Sometimes, a setting or a character will spark a story.  A lot of the time, when I'm feeling frustrated, I take a break from my current project and work on background notes for another one.  Just being immersed in my own world helps, especially when I'm producing things that I know nobody will read.  It frees up the flow of ideas, and when I'm done plotting, it's easy to keep that flow going.
  10. Take a Break.  If nothing else is working, take a break from writing.  No more than a day or two, and use the break to do something.  Work in another artistic medium, like painting or music.  Go for a hike in the woods.  Sit quietly and really listen to music.  Take some time to catch up on yard work (I've found that digging in the dirt is immensely calming, and the garden is a great place to get some thinking done).  But don't use the break to goof off:
    • DO NOT play video games.
    • DO NOT passively watch TV or movies (if you watch with your writer's hat on, that's a different matter, but be careful).
    • DO NOT watch Youtube videos or get sucked into Wikipedia holes.
    • DO NOT play with social media, except to share your blogs.

Hopefully, this list is helpful to you.  No matter how you deal with writer's block, just remember, it happens to all of us.


Taking Notes Like a Writer

I used to hate taking notes, because to me it meant I was in a classroom.  But as a writer, I've found that notes are an inevitable, and frankly stress-reducing practice.

When you're a writer, your brain should always be turned on.  You should always be observing everything you see, hear, and do.  You never know when inspiration will come along, and if you're not ready, it's going to pass you by.

Have you ever had a great idea when you were standing in line at the grocery store, or lying in bed, or changing your kid's diaper?  And you thought to yourself, I'm gonna write that down the minute I finish this.  But by the time you're actually finished, other concerns have intruded and the idea is gone.  But you remember that it existed, but the content of the idea is lost.  And that's the part that really stings, right?

What if that shit never happened again?

If you haven't already, get Google Keep or Evernote on your phone.  Put it somewhere where you can open it with two taps or less.  You need fast access to your note-taking app.

If you're a sensible writer, you understand why a note taking app on your phone is an obviously good idea.  But maybe you're not sensible, and in that case, I have but one question:  Have you ever not had your phone on you?  I understand some people dig pens and paper, but seriously, if you're going to be stubborn about this, you're going to lose some ideas.  It'll happen.  But with a note-taking app on your phone, and some good habits, you'll never lose another idea again.  Wouldn't that be nicer than a pen and a notebook?

For me, the thought that I'll catch every idea that comes whizzing out of my subconscious reduces stress :)

But what notes should you take?  Well for obvious starters, any random story or scene idea that pops into your head should get written down.  Of course.

But beyond that, there are four running lists I recommend you keep:

  • A Key Inspiration List: Every time you see a movie, TV show, documentary, or read a book that makes you say "I wanna do something like that!"  put it in this list, and write a little bit about why it inspired you.  What did you like about it?  Any ideas you want to outright rip off? (this is a thing we all do, I advise you to get comfortable with it.  there's nothing new under the sun)  Whatever it is, put it in this list, and just forget about it.  Then, when you're developing a new story, take a peek at this, and see if anything jumps out at you.  You might decide to pull elements from a few disparate sources, and come up with something original.
  • A Word Collection: This isn't just a collection of single words (although great words are certainly welcome), this list is about writing down every quote or turn of phrase that catches your ear.  Mine is mostly movie quotes, but there are a lot of random tidbits from the recesses of my brain, and a lot of random strings of words pulled from every corner of reality.  You never know when you might use them in a story, and not only that, but being on the lookout for this stuff tunes your ear to beautiful language, and that in itself makes you a better writer.
  • A Beat Collection: If you don't know what I mean by "beats", read this.  But the short version is beats are those little snippets of action and stage business that surround dialogue.  My Body Language Lexicon contains quite a few that are more or less universal in Western culture, but the universal stuff will only get you so far.  Beats are one of the ways we let readers into our characters, and a truly unique beat can bring a moment to life.  So watch other people.  Watch yourself.  Every time you catch a unique or telling piece of body language, write it down.
  • A Sensory Detail Collection:  If beats bring characters to life, sensory details bring settings to life.  The more senses you involve in your descriptions, the more vivid they'll be.  And as I said in this article, the smart writer only describes the details that aren't obvious.  So every time you notice a detail that isn't obvious--say the rush of air in a subway station just before a train arrives, or the smell of dander and wood shavings in a pet store--write it in this list, and you'll build a database of beautiful details to draw upon in your descriptions.
Because puppies.
I don't know about you, but I go into a state of near panic when I lose an idea, even if it wasn't that good.  Writing down ideas is a habit, and it's a good one to be in, because when it counts, it really counts.  With a good app, and the running lists above, you'll never miss out on anything again.

For other stuff I recommend, check out this page.