Word of the Week: Macerated

I don’t know where I first saw this word, but three months ago, I added it to my list of potential Words of the Week, and it seemed a fitting one for Halloween. According to Merriam Webster, “macerated” falls in the bottom 40% of popular words, and means “to cause to waste away by or as if by excessive fasting.” When used with an object, Dictionary.com defines it as “to soften or separate into parts by steeping in a liquid; to soften or decompose (food) by the action of a solvent; to cause to grow thin.” Used without an object, it means to waste away, or grow thin and emaciated.

Lucy Westenra, the chaste victim of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, macerates into a shell of herself, weakening with each visit from the blood-thirsty beast, who sucks at her life force, draining her of blood, energy, soul.

Perhaps the spooky holiday is coloring my perception of the word, but, for today at least, it conjures images of vampires’ victims, rotting zombies, and werewolves gnawing on human remains.

“Macerated” is the perfect word for the likes of Lucy Westenra, the chaste victim of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Each visit from the lusty, blood-thirsty beast weakens Lucy, sucking at her life force, draining her not only of blood, but also of her vivacity, energy, and soul. Her friends watch as she macerates into a shell of herself, ultimately becoming a demon they are forced to hunt down and kill.
The word also precisely describes the disintegrating corpses of the undead, as they wander the world, decomposing–macerating.
And of course we cannot leave out the masticating jaws of the werewolf, capable of severing limbs to macerate the bones and muscle tissue with the aid of thick, dripping drool.

The Perks of Writing Conferences and Workshops

Still riding high from my positive experience at the James River Writers Annual Conference last weekend, and preparing to participate in NaNoWriMo and attend The Tesseract: A Week of Experiments in Writing next month, it occurs to me to reflect on just why I so love writing conferences and workshops–and why you might want to attend some, too, if you haven’t already. Here are the six reasons I was able to distill from my general enthusiasm.

Exposure to Agents

Because of my attendance at the James River Writers Annual Conference, I have had the opportunity to pitch my novel on two different occasions, to two different agents. I was woefully under-prepared (or perhaps completely unprepared is more accurate) the first time, but this second time I came equipped with a few workshops and practice queries and pitches under my belt, and my pitch went much better. Instead of feeling incurably anxious, I felt hopeful and excited. And those feelings continued when, at the close of my seven minutes with an agent who I had a lot of fun taking with, she asked me to go ahead and send her the first 20 pages of my manuscript. I don’t know where things will go from here, but that was a small step in the right direction, and it would not have been possible without the Annual Conference.

In addition to taking advantage of the chance to talk with an agent one-on-one, I have heard valuable advice from a variety of agents, which can help me improve the marketability of my novel, my writing in general, and my query letter and pitch.

Networking

When you attend conferences and participate in workshops, you meet fellow writers, editors, and bibliophiles who can help guide you on your writing journey. What we can learn from each other is amazing. I feel so fortunate to have met people like Kris Spisak, Valley Haggard, Judy Witt, and Mary-Chris Escobar, who have helped me with writing activities as diverse as author interviews, workshop experiences, advising the high school literary magazine and creative writing club, and participating in a critique group that has been immeasurably helpful.

Inspiration

In 2014,  I attended my first Master Class as part of the James River Writers Annual Conference. I do not recall the name of the two or three classes I attended, but one of them focused on helping writers compose synopses of their novels or memoirs, in preparation for writing query letters or pitching. I am a naturally verbose person, so the task of squeezing something as large as a novel into something as succinct as a synopsis was (is) daunting–made even more daunting by the fact that at the time, I didn’t even have a novel or memoir in the works. The closest thing I had to a novel in the works was a piece I had started (and stopped) writing in a Composition notebook four years prior, in 2010.

After some instruction and examples, the instructor gave us some time to quietly craft our synopses. Because I didn’t have anything about which to write a synopsis, I harkened back to the book I had begun writing four years before, even though I hadn’t added a single word to it in all that time, and truth be told, didn’t even know where the Composition book was.

Because I didn’t have anything about which to write a synopsis, I harkened back to the book I had begun writing four years before, even though I hadn’t added a single word to it in all that time, and truth be told, didn’t even know where the Composition book was.

When most of us were finished–or as finished as we were going to be–the instructor asked for volunteers to read what they had written, opening themselves up for feedback from both her and our fellow writers in the class. I did not volunteer at first, desiring to hear a few examples and learn whether or not I had been on the right track. After listening to maybe three or four volunteers, I raised my hand, and read my synopsis. The response I got was so overwhelmingly positive, that I felt inspired to go home and tear my house apart in search of the Composition book. When, after surprisingly little effort, I found it, I set to typing up what I had already written. From there, I continued the story, and now, two years, three Annual Conferences, and six drafts later, I have something like a finished product.

When we attend a conference, we are surrounded by people who not only share a dream similar to ours, but who also share a love of writing, and who take us seriously as writers. This atmosphere of support and encouragement can remind us first, that we are not alone in our goal, and second, that other people believe in us.

Had I not attended that 2014 Annual Conference, I would never have finished my novel, a source of great pride and pleasure for me.

One more thought on inspiration: We writers (at least, I speak for myself) experience much more rejection of our work than we do acceptance and publication. It can be easy to feel discouraged at times, to ask: Why am I doing this? Am I really good enough? Can I even call myself a writer? But when we attend a conference, we are surrounded by people who not only share a dream similar to ours, but who also share a love of writing, and who take us seriously as writers. This atmosphere of support and encouragement can remind us first, that we are not alone in our goal, and second, that other people believe in us.

Ideas

In addition to feeling inspired to complete works in progress, attending workshops and conferences often inspires new ideas, potentially leading you to write pieces that later develop into submittable work. For weeks after attending The Poetry Society of Virginia‘s 2016 Annual Poetry Festival and Conference in May, I was composing haiku in my head everywhere I went, dictating them into my phone for transcription later on. I have submitted several to various publications. I had a similar experience with the Life in 10 Minutes workshop I participated in during January and February of this year, though in that case, I was writing short slices of life in the form of somewhat sparse, stream-of-consciousness prose.

Opportunities

Every time I attend a writing conference or workshop, I learn about other relevant opportunities. For example, my attendance at an Agile Writers of Richmond meeting is the reason I found out about the Our Virginia poetry project, to which I have submitted two poems. I learned about Life in 10 Minutes through a Masters Class at the James River Writers Annual Conference, and through my participation in a Life in 10 Minutes workshop, I learned about The Tesseract: A Weekend of Experiments in Writing.

Information and Improved Skill

I cannot emphasize enough how much information one can take away from a conference or workshop–about craft, about the field, about publishing, about upcoming opportunities, about submissions, about other local writers, and about oneself. I have learned how to hone my vocabulary; how to write a query letter; how to craft a pitch; how to let go and really write, uninhibited–just to name a few valuable lessons. I have also learned about new tools and technologies, like dictation apps, and programs like Scribner (neither of which I use yet–but both of which I now know about, and knowledge is power). In addition, I have picked up little tips about things I never thought to do, but that prove helpful, such as tracking my daily word count (which was just suggested to me last Friday, and which I admittedly have not yet begun to do–but will). Finally, I have learned about valuable, supportive, and helpful Facebook groups, like For Love or Money (as in, do you write for the love of writing, or to make a living–and how does either impact your writing?).

 

James River Writers Annual Conference 2016

In his essay “Why Soldiers Won’t Talk,” John Steinbeck surmises that one reason a soldier can return to battle despite the traumas of war, and a woman can bear more than one child despite the ravages of labor and delivery, is simply because neither can

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Every October, James River Writers puts on their Annual Conference at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

remember what the experience was like, rendering both incapable of experiencing the fear that might prevent them from entering into a similar experience again. “Perhaps,” he writes, “all experience which is beyond bearing is that way–the system provides the shield and removes the memory.” I think there is some validity to Steinbeck’s hypothesis. I see it evidenced in my own life, in at least two areas. The first is my husband’s willingness–eagerness, even–to engage in DIY home projects over and over again, despite the stress and anxiety they inevitably cause him. Not long after completing one painful project, he starts to get antsy for another–to the extent that we just purchased a second home, in part to help satisfy his craving for projects (and he is now completely embroiled in the pangs of a plethora of home projects). The second is my own experience with writing conferences, my favorite and the most accessible one to me being the James River Writers Annual Conference. I look forward to this three-day event with an enthusiasm approaching that of a young child’s at Christmas. But some years, I leave feeling defeated and discouraged: There are so many writers out there with so many stellar ideas, and we are all in competition for an agent, a publisher, a paycheck. I look around at the sheer number of writers in attendance at the conference and think: How can I possibly stand a chance against so many competitors? Frankly, it’s deflating.

 We come together as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community.

But at Friday’s pre-conference Master Class, “How to Hook an Agent–From the Query Letter Through the Opening Pages,” literary agent Michael Carr said something that helped me realize at least one reason (there are many) I look forward to the conference every year: “It’s important to get motivation from events like this.” He went on to explain that so much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together. We are among people who take us seriously as writers. We convene as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community. And it is in that spirit of the writer’s community that I share with you just a handful of highlights and takeaways from this weekend’s James River Writers Annual Conference.

For reference and in an effort to give credit where credit is due, here is a list of the sessions I attended:

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

On Revising

Sentence Structure

Be sure to vary your sentence structure. Reusing the same sentence structure can pull the reader out of your narrative, or, as Michael Carr explains it, can “wake him up from the fictive dream.” Two structures that Carr says are frequently overused, particularly by amateur writers are: 1) “Doing this, she did this” or 2) its inverse: “She did this, doing this.”

So much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together.

Tension

Each scene of a novel needs tension to hold a reader’s interest. Some ways to introduce tension can include giving the character a goal–and creating a character who actively engages in reaching this goal, as opposed to passively waiting for things to happen to him. Secondly, there must be some opposition regarding the goal. Something must impede the character’s achieving the goal he has set. Another tool in the writer’s belt is dramatic irony. The reader’s experience of knowing more than the characters about which she is reading is a powerful means of creating tension. Finally, be sure to ask yourself if there is enough at stake. What will the consequences be if the character achieves his goal versus if he does not achieve his goal?

The Opening Lines

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Bill Blume moderated the First Page panel Sunday morning. During this session, several writers’ page-ones are read allowed and critiqued by three literary agents.

At least three different experts at the conference exaggerated the importance of starting in the right place, which could be as simple as deleting the first line or first paragraph, or as complicated as rearranging the order in which your chapters appear–as was the case with my novel. Initially, Goodbye For Now opened with Marissa Donnoway working at The Beanery, serving a difficult customer. Several people mentioned that the book started a bit too slowly. In response, I wrote a new scene, one in which two brothers are looking out over Lake Huron. Still too slow. I deleted that scene, and opened the book with the emergency room scene. That didn’t work logistically, and the book currently begins with Scott Wilder’s suicide.

Feedback

If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another.

Keep in mind that when beta readers, critique partners, critique groups, or other readers offer feedback, you are not obligated to take it–but deciding when and if you should follow someone’s advice can be tricky, and sometimes, so can not getting our feelings hurt. I thought Michael Carr’s comments regarding this issue were an insightful reframing of how to look at criticism. He essentially suggested that when someone responds critically to your work, it simply means he woke up from the fictive dream and didn’t “believe you.” It is not personal. It means you might want to revisit that part of your piece and consider how you can strengthen it. Sometimes, a reader might suggest a specific change to improve a piece–a change you disagree with. It’s important to keep in mind that you do not have to act on specific advice, but you would likely be wise to address the issue in some way, even if it is not the way your critic suggested. Carr also advised, “If the feedback resonates with you, address it. If it doesn’t, don’t.” Specific feedback itself might not be worth following, but reexamining each part about which a reader makes suggestions is worthwhile. In my case, the people who told me my book started too slowly only confirmed what I had suspected all along–so I addressed that issue (many times…).

I also appreciated what Natasha Sass of Busstop Press said about feedback: If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another. More on this, in the context of tropes, below.

On Writing to Market and Finding Your Audience

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Master Class “Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market,” led by Natasha Sass, delivered on its promise, living up to its title. 

Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but until attending Friday’s Master Class,
“Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market: Game-Changing Tips for Indie Authors (and Writers who Want to Up Their Game NOW!”, I was unfamiliar with the term “trope.” Now I know a trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre. The tricky part is that tropes change over time, so reading within your genre and subgenre can be an important way to keep up with what tropes are currently desirable in your area.
What does your audience want? What do they expect?

A trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre.

On Inspiration

Two important notions occurred to me as I sat in a session today, the final day of this year’s Annual Conference. The first was that this year was quite possibly my favorite Annual Conference thus far (though they have all been wonderful). The second was that I would likely have never finished my novel, Goodbye For Now, had it not been for the 2014 James River Writers Annual Conference. The idea for my novel was born in 2006, when I was studying abroad in Germany–an ocean away from my then-fiance (now, husband). I began actually writing the novel in 2010 (I think) in a black-and-white Composition book. After a few weeks, I got busy and just stopped writing. I even lost the Composition book. Four years later, at a Master Class that was part of the 2014 Annual Conference, I read aloud the synopsis I composed in the workshop that day. The response I got from the instructor and my fellow attendees was so supportive, I came home and dug through my attic space until I found the Composition book. My desire to write the novel was reinvigorated, but it would likely have remained dormant, safely stored away in my mental attic, had I never attended the conference. Now, two years later, the sixth draft of my novel is complete, and I feel equally excited, motivated, inspired, and encouraged. And I already can’t wait until next year’s conference.

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When I returned home from the third and final day of the conference this afternoon, I spent over an hour nestled in my backyard hammock, snuggling with my whippet and reflecting on all I had learned–only the tiniest fraction of which I had the time to relate in this blog post.

Word of the Week: Lacuna

Once again, I’m early with this week’s Word of the Week post, in an effort not to miss it. Sunday, will again be a travel day for me, as I will be coming home from my last trip of summer break, which ends on Monday, making this week’s word, “lacuna,” a fairly appropriate one.

As a teacher, I often field the question: What do you do all summer?–an implication that surely, with a two-month lacuna in the demands of my job, I will get bored. I can assure you, that is never a concern.

I came across the word “lacuna” in the novel I am (still) currently reading, 2666. Merriam-Webster’s simple definition of the word is “a gap or blank space in something: a missing part.” The full definition also includes “a small cavity, pit, or discontinuity in an anatomical structure.” Dictionary.com expands the definition to a third possibility: “an air space in the cellular tissue of plants.” “Lacuna” can also be applied to music, denoting an extended silence in a piece. I think my favorite definition for the word is probably the most general: “an unfilled space or interval; a gap,” which is the result of a simple Google search of the word (another result of said search being that The Lacuna is also a novel by Barbara Kingsolver, in case you’re interested).

This definition appeals to me for two reasons. One: Its broadness allows for the word’s application to so many spheres–music, language, work, manuscripts and texts, career, romance, physical landscape, memory, sleep–there could be a “lacuna” in practically anything. Two: My summer break is a kind of lacuna–a hiatus from the harried day-to-day of late August through mid June, when my days begin at 4:45 in the morning and often don’t end until long past my point of exhaustion.

And although “lacuna” denotes a sort of emptiness, a something missing, I can honestly say that my summer days are jam-packed–just not with stress and work and duties. My summer was indeed a lacuna in the daily grind, but was in no way devoid of activity. So, to answer the question with which we began: What did I do with my summer break–how did I fill that seeming lacuna? Here’s the short list:

  1. Visited family in Florida twice.

  2. Visited family in Michigan.

  3. Traveled to Pennsylvania twice, once for a family reunion and once to see a friend.

  4. Visited family in the Outer Banks twice.

  5. Worked on my novel in various capacities.

  6. Submitted pieces of my writing to various publications.

  7. Worked on lesson plans for the upcoming school year.

  8. Completed a course to become a certified life coach.

  9. Read two novels (still working on the third).

  10. Traveled to the Northern Neck a handful of times.

  11. Took my dogs on really long walks every morning.

  12. Spent bonus time with my local family.

  13. Went to the river a few times.

  14. Laid out in the sun.

  15. Threw a Summer Solstice Potluck Party.

  16. Kept my house marginally cleaner.

  17. Continued to maintain this lovely little blog.

  18. Attended a professional development session during which I created a class website.

  19. Took naps.

  20. Grew food.

I’ll stop there. I’m quite sure you get the point: Even my lacuna was full!

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week:

Glebe

Otiose

Apricate

 

Word of the Week: Glebe

I usually reserve Sundays for my Word of the Week posts, but as tomorrow will be a travel day for me, I’m posting this particular Word of the Week today, which is fitting, as I came across the word during one of the many trips I took this summer.

A few weeks ago, I drove to Washington, DC, to take a series of aptitude tests at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation (side note: so informative and interesting; I highly recommend the experience). The testing spanned a two-day period, so I stayed the night with my aunt and uncle who live just outside the city. After dinner, we sat in their cozy family room, discussing logistics for the next morning. They advised me to take the metro to the city the next day, parking my car in the deck on Glebe Road.

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The view from my side mirror as I left the parking garage on Glebe Road, named for the Episcopal priest’s residence that used to be nearby.

Then my aunt asked my uncle, “Did you tell her what ‘glebe’ means?”

My uncle had not, and I had never thought to ask, having assumed it was someone’s last name.

According to Merriam-Webster.com, “glebe” is a noun referring to a cultivated plot of land, usually owned by and generating revenue for a church or parish. It sits at the bottom 30% of word popularity, which explains why the only place I can recall ever having seen it in print is on the road sign near the parking deck where I did indeed park the next day.

The word is pretty archaic, but could come in handy if you are writing historical fiction, for example.

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week

otiose

apricate

sessile

 

Than vs. Then

One of the reasons English is often cited as one of the most difficult languages to learn is its many homophones, one of the most infamous pairs being “than” and “then.” What follows is an extremely simplified explanation of their proper use.

“Than” with an “a” expresses comparisons. One way to remember this might be to associate the “a” in “than” with the “a” in “comparison.” An example of the proper use of “than” would be:

Ian is taller than Sally is.

The above sentence compares Ian’s height to Sally’s.

“Then” with an “e” relates to time. One way to remember this might be to associate the “e” in “then” with the “e” in “time.” An example of the proper use of “then” would be:

Ian was the taller of the two children, but then Sally grew.

The above sentence helps express when in time Ian was no longer taller than Sally–after she grew.

A sentence that uses both “than” and “then” properly would be:

Ian was taller than Sally, but then Sally grew.

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While I admit to loving the message in this Instagram post I came across a few weeks ago, I also admit I had a difficult time seeing beyond the “then” that should have been a “than.”

Word of the Week: Otiose

Some of you might have noticed that lately, I have been a bit remiss in my Sunday Word of the Week posts. After all, three weeks have drifted by without a single new vocabulary word to satisfy your lexical cravings. I hope you’ll accept my apologies, especially because my inspiration for this week’s Word of the Week stems directly from my seemingly lax attitude.

This week’s Word of the Week is “otiose.” Dictionary.com defines the word first as “being at leisure; idle; indolent.” The second definition is “ineffective or futile.” The final is “superfluous or useless.” I certainly hope my behavior doesn’t qualify for the second or third definition, but I must admit it might be a good candidate for the first one.

Merriam-Webster.com places “otiose” in the bottom 50% of word popularity, and defines it as “producing no useful result” (guilty–at least in terms of Word of the Week posts); “being at leisure” (I plead the Fifth); and “lacking use or effect” (innocent–I’ve been doing lots of useful things… They just haven’t included my weekly vocabulary posts).

I suppose at the very least I could provide you an explanation for my otiose behavior. I am sure once you see the photographs below, you’ll not only completely understand, but also completely forgive, my slacking. (Though in all honesty, I can’t promise I won’t relapse in weeks to come, at least now and again.)

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I failed to compose a July 10 Word of the Week post because I succeeded in spending several hours playing with a friend, my sister, her husband, my niece, and my nephew in the sun, sand, and surf in Florida. So, yes–it’s safe to say I was “at leisure; idle” that day.
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I was nowhere to be found in the virtual world on July 17 because I was busy splashing around in the crisp (okay–freezing…!) waters of the Youghiogheny River Gorge in Ohiopyle (say it out loud; it’s fun) State Park in Pennsylvania with my sisters, their husbands and children, and my husband.

Now, for the first time in weeks, you have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week

apricate

sessile

fustilarian

 

Rookie Mistakes that Ruin your Writing

As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.

Inconsistent Tense

I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.

The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.

Unnatural Dialog

Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.

While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:

  1. Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.

  2. Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.

  3. Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.

Clichéd Characters

Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:

  1. Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.

  2. Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.

  3. Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.

  4. Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.

  5. Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.

  6. Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.

  7. Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.

Weak Words

I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

Inconsistent Perspectives

First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.

Word of the Week: Apricate

The word “apricate” seems like an apt one for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, when many of us will celebrate our nation’s independence by, among other festivities, heading to the beach (at least in my neck of the woods). In fact, I seized an opportunity to apricate yesterday–I do it all summer long, actually–and didn’t even know that’s what I was doing. You probably do, too. I came across the word today while perusing Dictionary.com, where I happened across a slideshow called “Rise and Shine: 9 Sunny Words.” “Apricate” appeared on the very first slide, and is brand new to me.

It’s a verb meaning “to bask in the sun,” or “to tan.” Many people I know refer to this activity as “laying out.”

When I first saw the word, I was reminded of the word “apricot,” which Dictionary.com was quick to point out actually bears no etymological relation to “apricate.” In my experience, however, they are related: I ate an apricot while I apricated (though I honestly don’t know if the past tense of “apricate” is “apricated”) yesterday afternoon.

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Above: One of my favorite places to apricate is Pony Pasture on the James River. Below left: One my dogs apricates on our back deck. Below right: The view I have from the lounge chair (pictured left) when I apricate on my back deck.

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week

sessile

fustilarian

lachrymose

Word of the Week: Sessile

A couple weeks ago when I was looking up a recent word of the week, fustilarian, Dictionary.com suggested I might actually have meant “sertularian.” I didn’t, but I went ahead and looked up “sertularian,” anyway (because, why not?), and in so doing, exposed myself to another new word: “sessile.” Not to be drawn too far off course from my investigation of “fustilarian,” I resisted the temptation to further research “sertularian” and “sessile,” saving them for a future Word of the Week post. Well, the future is now, and I have found particular poetic potential in “sessile.”

Dictionary.com defines “sessile” within two contexts, the first being botany and the second being zoology. In the context of the former, the word means “attached by the base, or without any distinct projecting support, as a leaf issuing directly from the stem.”In the context of the latter, it means “permanently attached; not freely moving.

Merriam-Webster’s definitions are similar: “attached directly by the base; not raised upon a stalk or peduncle” and “permanently attached or established; not free to move about.”

Though Merriam-Webster rates “sessile” as landing in the bottom 40% of word popularity (so I need not feel so silly for never having heard the word before, or at least not remembering if I have), I think its potential for figurative use is pretty immense. For instance, a character in a story or speaker of a poem could be described as sessile–tethered, for example, to a lover or to the past, or held back by a physical deformity or someone for whom he or she feels responsible. George Milton of John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men comes to mind as a character who might well be–albeit somewhat ironically–described as sessile. Though he and Lennie are migrant workers–seemingly the exact opposite of people whose situations might be described as sessile, or “permanently established,” and they are more than “free to move about”–George is still not “freely moving.” Both he and Lennie are held back by Lennie’s always being misunderstood and doing “bad things” that keep the two constantly on the run. **SPOILER ALERT** Until George must shoot Lennie near the end of the novella, prompting him to realize how much he actually needs and cares about Lennie, he definitely feels sessile–“permanently attached” to Lennie, “not freely moving,” “not free to move about” (forced to move about, perhaps, but not free to establish the dream ranch he and Lennie imagine and settle down).

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week

fustilarian

lachrymose

kalopsia