A good editor will help you get rid of your pet phrases

I’m not sure where pet phrases begin, but almost every novel I’ve written has ended up with the overuse of some phrase or word choice that my editors and I try to find and remove before publication.

Now some pet phrases help define a character. One character might typically say, “you got that right” and another might say “goodness gracious.” As long as they aren’t saying these things on every page, these phrases help define them.

However, things get out of hand if all the characters in your stories and novels are saying, “you got that right.” What are the odds that would ever happen? Some authors become aware of the fact they are using a phrase way too often before they finish the first draft, while others don’t notice it until they’re in the editing process.

If I suspect I’m using a phrase over and over, I search for that phrase in my Word Document to see if it shows up too often. When it does, I go through the manuscript and get rid of it.

I thought of this today while reading a mainstream novel by a popular author. When the police or FBI investigators informed a character of some fact or event, the characters often respond with “did she?” While such a response could equally be a favorite of one character, it can’t possibly fit all the characters in the book. So, the phrase stands out because it has been overused as a response in the story. A good editor should have caught this.

I notice it because “did she” and “did she really” are phrases that I’ve seen in U. K. novels and films of another era and seem a bit out of place when they appear over and over in an American novel. The phrase, as far as I know, is not part of a fad in this country. If it were, you could use it more often, though it would–of course–date the novel.

It has always amazed me how often I can use what I think is a fresh and creative way of saying something, only to find out that I’ve used it twenty times already in the manuscript.

–Malcolm

 

Too many darned doctors’ appointments

Some authors can write while on a sinking ship or as bombs fall outside their windows. I’m not that kind of person.

No, things aren’t quite that bad–other than too much rain and grass too high to mow–but the things that are happening and are disruptive enough to make it difficult to write.

Sure, at my age (and my wife’s age) one should expect more doctors’ appointments. They fill up the calendar sometimes and often get scheduled on top of each other by offices that unilaterally select appointment times, send out an e-mail, and don’t worry about the fact their appointment conflicts with something already on the calendar.

Where one fears they’ll end up.

To some extent, many these appointments have to do with teeth that must be cleaned by a hygienist, old eyes that need prescriptions, and hearing problems that need magical hearing aids. Then there’s the usual sciatica and arthritis.

My wife was in several car wrecks (not her fault) some years ago, and the lack of compensation by the perpetrators’ insurance companies then leads to long term problems. The laws keep getting tighter, so that means more appointments so the doctor can say s/he saw us and can keep writing the same prescription one or the other of us has needed for years.

Several years ago, I had cancer surgery. It was a success. No chemo or radiation follow-up was needed. Today I learned that I might be facing something like that again. I’m pissed off about it because some test results last fall weren’t the best, but I was led to believe a wait-and-see approach was best. Now the test results are worse. So, that means more doctors’ appointments and worries.

I’m not a big fan of doctors, hospitals, regulations about the hoops one has to go through to get medications, and all that. I think “they” sense that my trust is always guarded. They think I should kowtow to them and I won’t do it. Yet, I wish I could hypnotize myself to move ahead normally until the next appointment without dwelling on all the possibilities that could occur after the new test results.

At least I could get some writing done rather than letting my imagination run wild about all the worst scenarios.

Malcolm

 

National Poetry Month

“National Poetry Month was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. Over the years, it has become the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture.

“Thank you for joining in the celebration by listing your events and attending other events in your community, displaying this year’s poster, participating in Poem in Your Pocket Day, recommending the Dear Poet project to a young person, signing up to read a Poem-a-Day, and checking out 30 more ways to celebrate.

Source: National Poetry Month | Academy of American Poets

A time to celebrate for those who write poetry, read poetry, or simply find the existence of poetry makes for a better world.

–Malcolm

Having fun with my research

Now that I’ve finally promised my publisher a new novel and floated the general premise past her (she liked it), it’s time to do some research.

Typical poster used to get the public to do their own knitting and donate a lot of it to the cause.

Like the Florida Folk Magic Stories, this novel will be set in the Florida Panhandle, so I already know the area. This is one of the benefits of writing a series, or doing a standalone novel that uses the series as a starting point: you have a lot of location information on file that wasn’t used in the previous novels.

Since my main character is a bag lady in 1955, I’ve been looking at clothing manufactured during the 1940s. Needless to say, a bag lady isn’t going to be wearing the latest thing from Paris or even from Sears Roebuck. There’s a lot of material available about 1940s women’s clothing inasmuch as it was greatly influenced by rationing and shortages.  A lot of people were mending old clothes, making do with fewer fabric selections, and knitting socks for the troops (and themselves).  So, I think I know what my bag lady’s going to wear.

While the novel isn’t historical, I want the cultural references to be right. So, what was happening in Florida in 1955? I already know that the KKK was strong in those years. And I know that educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune died in 1955 in Daytona Beach. My bag lady would know that because even though 1955 is part of the Jim Crow era, the story would be covered by the press.

My bag lady is–for reasons I won’t divulge now–an expert bow hunter. This means checking on the kinds of bows and arrows used by hunters in those days. I had good luck with this. I found information about the most widely known brand of bow at the time along with a selection of arrows.

Now, since this novel starts where the series ends, I have to make sure that I don’t contradict anything that happened in the series. So, I’m researching my own stuff to make sure there aren’t any continuity problems. For example, if a bad guy was killed in the series, I don’t want him showing up in the new book fit as a fiddle. By the way, “fit as a fiddle” is the kind of thing my bag lady would say–checking the slang of an era is part of the process. I’m surprised at the number of TV series that have characters from years ago using modern slang such as “whoa!” (meaning “wow!”) and other phrases that nobody said twenty or thirty years ago.

When Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and I were both in an ancient CompuServe literary forum, we found that we had one thing in common that a lot of writers weren’t understanding. The research has an impact on the story the writer is about to tell because it tips him/her off to things s/he didn’t know and is responsible for altering the plot of a novel in ways the writer wouldn’t have considered before the research phase began.

I didn’t care for research projects in school–often for the purpose of writing “themes” as they were called in those days–but I enjoy them now. I once read that writers like Nora Roberts have a staff that includes researchers. While there are times when I wish I could pick up the phone and ask an assistant a question and get an immediate answer, I feel much more in touch with my characters and my story when I have to look up all the stuff myself.

Malcolm

 

There is nothing that’s not God

“In philosophy, panpsychism is the view that consciousness, mind, or soul (psyche) is a universal and primordial feature of all things. Panpsychists see themselves as minds in a world of mind.” – Wikipedia

Yes, I believe everything has consciousness from the tree behind my house, to the hummingbird sitting in the tree, to the rocks lying at the base of the tree. Nothing else makes sense to me. Long before I heard the Huna phrase “there is nothing that is not God,” I saw the view outside my window as “God’s thoughts.”

Rather than focus here on a philosophical discussion for which nobody that I know of can prove one way or the other, I’ll just say that my view of the world has played hell (figuratively speaking) with the placement of my books and stories into one genre or another.

So, I tend to say that I write magical realism because that covers just about everything I want to do without having to argue about whether or not a thinking rock is a fantasy or realism. I consider thinking rocks to be real, but the publisher usually doesn’t. But magical realism, well, that’s another kettle of fish, isn’t it? I believe the landscape is, in fact, magical. So, if I place my books in the magical realism genre, I can say what realism won’t allow me to say.

Someday down the road, all of us will probably have to re-define what’s real and what isn’t real. As of now, in spite of what Quantum physics is telling us, we’re still trapped in a nuts and bolts version of reality insofar as publishers, governments, and news organizations are concerned. Basically, saying that I write magical realism has kept me out of the asylum because people who think trees are conscious are usually placed on the shortlist for shock treatments and straight jackets.

Since I think we create our own reality, it’s natural for my characters to have the same belief. My beliefs about this are quite literal. Most people see the matter as figurative, having more to do with attitudes about what’s happening rather than causing what’s happening. Here’s the good news. If I say all this in a story, I’m not picked up by the Feds and put in a home. Call it my artistic license.

I say what I’m writing is true. Publishers and most of my readers think it’s fantasy or magic. I’m okay with that because I know that once a reader reads it, s/he can’t unread it (so to speak). There will always be that nagging idea in readers’ minds that just maybe the stuff is real. Yes, it is. But there’s no rush to believe it. One day you will.

Malcolm

 

 

Siobhan, cá bhfuil tú?

I’m searching for my muse. She’s a Scot, so I’m saying in Gaelic, “where are you?” If you’re not Scottish, I should tell you that that name “Siobhan” is pronounced “Shihvon,” not “See ohb han.”

Having gotten that out of the way, if you see a potentially drunk muse wandering through your neighborhood, tell her to come home and help me get started with a new story. Ever since sending the last short story out to a magazine, I haven’t come up with anything.

One reason I need a new story is because I need money. Siobhan taught me to drink the most expensive brands of single malt Scotch out there, but when I’m broke, all I can afford is swill. That’s like being stuck with Bourbon which I don’t like at all unless it’s hidden in a mixed drink.

Frankly, if a writer doesn’t have a badass muse, he’s pretty much out of business, a hopeless drunk who wakes up in bordellos and/or jail cells and wonders how he got there. Writing is more dangerous than most people think. Not writing is either more dangerous. Trust me on this because without Siobhan’s help, I have no way to explain it.

Siobhan lives in Hawai’i and sends me story ideas via telepathy because (obviously) I don’t have enough dough to travel to Oahu. Plus, if I told my wife I was traveling to Oahu to meet a woman, her reaction probably wouldn’t me all that great. “Wouldn’t a sat phone be cheaper than a plane ticket?” she would ask. “But it’s for literature,” I would protest.

“Hah!”

So there it is.

If you see Siobhan on the beach at Kailua, tell her to give me a call. My fans are calling me every day screaming for new stories and they’re turning to James Patterson and Tom Clancy (even though he’s dead) in desperation.

–Malcolm

 

 

 

 

Allowing the story to go where it wills

“Trot your horse wherever he wants to go, putting pressure on with your legs when he goes away from the scary spot, and releasing pressure when he goes towards it. Resist the almost overpowering urge to steer your horse. Trust him! Hold on to the saddle with one hand if he is ‘ducking and diving.’ Keep trotting, he is looking for an answer, let him find it. When he finally goes to a spot in the arena he hasn’t been to yet – let him stop and rest. Just hang out with him there, or get off if it’s time to end your session.” – Logan Darrow

I haven’t ridden a horse in years, but when I did ride, I enjoyed dropping the reins to see where he would go. Logan Darrow’s exercise, posted on The Mindful Horse Woman four years ago, is wise advice for everyone with a horse. I enjoyed trusting the horse and I think he enjoyed the fact I wasn’t controlling what he was doing. In the same fashion, I enjoyed driving my old car aimlessly to see where I would end up. It wasn’t quite the same since I really couldn’t let go of the steering wheel.

But the concept was similar, somewhat like following winds, currents, and tides in a boat: giving up control and enjoying the ride. More often than not, whether it was by horse or car or sailboat, such rides took me where I needed to go even though I didn’t consciously know it. What I saw changed me. Where I ended up the was a person I needed to meet or something I needed to witness.

I feel the same way about poems, short stories, and novels. While we may have a theme, a set of characters, and a general plan for the action, the work ends up better if we trust ourselves and the material enough to drop the reins. No, I’m not advocating typing gibberish or writing while drunk. Yet stories seem to flow in a natural direction once you get them started. Like trying to force water to flow uphill, forcing a story away from its natural direction is not only a lot of hassle, the result looks unnatural.

I was reminded of this several days ago while working on a short story about a man in a rest home. Unusual for me, I intuited how it was going to end. I seldom know that. This time I did know it and I didn’t like it. So, like gently neck-reining your horse one direction or another, I “encouraged” the story to go down a path that didn’t lead to that ending.

A fight ensued. Clearly, like a horse who wanted to head for the barn, the story refused to go anywhere that didn’t lead to that ending. Yes, I know, if you can’t stop your horse from racing to the barn, you’re a poor rider. So, there always needs to be a meeting of the minds between you and your horse about what it is you’re doing. The same is true for a story. So, my story knew we weren’t going to gallop toward that ending on page one. And I learned that no matter what else happened in the story, its natural ending was a destiny the characters couldn’t avoid.

We can’t always drop the reins when we’re riding or writing, but we probably don’t drop them enough. The story’s almost finished now. The ending the story wanted makes sense. It also coincides with what I wanted to say better than ending the story some other way. I have no idea why this process works the way it does. We could speculate, I suppose, but even if we found the answer it wouldn’t change the process for the better.

If you don’t like the story you end up with, you can hide it at the bottom of your sock drawer and move onto something new.

Malcolm

Coming soon, a collection of nine short stories that more or less did what they wanted.