Cranky in Hawaii? Tree Yourself/Free Yourself

Yeah, this tree's big, but you shoulda seen the one that got away

Yeah, this tree’s big, but you shoulda seen the one that got away

Who’s got the skills to be cranky, virtually anywhere? Paris, Bali—maybe even in Hawaii, in those isles of warm, fragrant breezes and aloha? Yeah, baby. I can become pettily petulant, no matter what cushion of clouds. Not that trivial confessions might be of use to you, but that their lessons can have an impact on your writing.

The stage: I’ll be house-sitting at the very tippy-top of the Big Island with my girlfriend for the next month. It is not ugly here. If you’ve spent much time in Hawaii, you know it’s like having a mild massage (those tropical trade winds exchange strain for ease) at all times. Add in some rum, and it’s hard to even muster a credible curse about the government.

But because we just arrived, and had to get some clue as to where we were, what was there, and how to get to other promising theres, the fact that we got stuck with a clunker of an under-the-table car rental (one that threatened to leave us in-between theres without ever starting again) was a blood-pressure pumper.

So we had to jaunt over from the northern nape of the island to Hilo, across the magic mountains to the east. And then fuss at length over the oft-confusing details of where to meet to exchange the car, which car to get in exchange and when—details that changed multiple times over the course of a couple of hours. So instead of being happy in Hilo, with its beautiful bay and good people-watching, we were sweaty, frustrated and most un-Hawaiian.

Enter Banyan, Stage Center
However, small-minded humans are no match for nature. Waiting for our dithering car-rental person to finally show up at one of the multiple times/places we were supposed to meet her, we saw across the way from us a big public park, with astonishing trees. One of them is the “geeez, how big will I be when I really grow up” banyan tree pictured above. Under it we sat. Applied those tropical warm breezes in its sweet shade. Breathed.

Oooh, good medicine. That fixed it—really. The wait for our rental didn’t seem like a big deal anymore; neither did the fact that we had to roll back over those mountains—fantastic views!—on the dazzling Saddle Road without having much chance to stop, because we had to return home to free our house-sit dog from its crate, before it could phone its owner about our abuse.

Get to the Writing Already
This is a lesson I already know, but because my mind is a damp, leaky thing, I forget: when your brain is boiling with internal argument and naysaying, take it outside. When I am frustrated with my writing work, clutching the keyboard all the tighter has never worked. You can squeeze a sentence’s throat so hard that no emergency syntax attendants can ever revive it.

Take the writing for a walk. Find a banyan tree. Heck, if you’re not in Hawaii, a nice oak will do. Plunk your bottom down and rock in the arms of some sweet breeze. Cranky in Hawaii (or in Poughkeepsie) no more. Finding a way out of your writing is the best way I know to find your way back in. (That is, until I forget again.)

Gravity Can’t Defeat Us (But My Handwriting Might)

In celebration of twaddle and inflamed sentences

In celebration of twaddle and inflamed sentences

If you’re an old crustacean like me, you might remember the heady days of Tang, the drink of the astronauts. Who cares if it was sugared vitamin water—John Glenn drank it! So did I, and I was often given to flights of fancy. That’s why when I first heard of the Fisher Space Pen in the 70s (a few orbits after their first manufacture), I wanted one. The astronauts used them!

And how could one not crave something that used gravity-defeating “thixotropic ink-semisolid …pressurized with nitrogen”? But I didn’t own a Fisher until sometime in the 90s, and slippery little capsule that it was, it disappeared on me. Probably floated off with some pixie dust from a passing comet.

But I finally have another, seen in the image above. They’ve fancied it up a bit since the original days, putting on an anti-gravity clip, but its ink still flows freely, space-bound or not. I’m combining it with another historical item, my first Moleskine notebook, on which I inscribed its first page a couple of writerly quotations. (Picasso and Hemingway scribbled in them; I can too.)

Flight from the Mainland
What’s prompted these new treasures? Flight from the mainland! My gal pal Alice and I are heading to the Big Island of Hawaii in two days, where we’ll be house-sitting in a little home at the very northern tip of the island. I haven’t done a lot of travel writing lately about new places, so I’m thrilled to get a chance to get to know an island that’s actively spewing hot gases and chunks, like many writers I admire.

One of those paradoxes: I very much like the physical act of writing, the texture of paper, the angling of the pen (or pencil), the variances of pressure from the hand and fingers, the roll of ink across the page. I love writing instruments, paper, bound volumes, calligraphy. But I have forever loathed the crimped, jagged splotchings of my own handwriting—no matter how slowly or carefully I try to form letters and words, they come out as an intestinal product, something that looks as though it should be covered up.

However, I’m delighted to think that I’ll have new promptings of sea, sky and soul to scrawl on about, so I’m looking forward to taking notes of island ventures. And I won’t have to wear any bulky helmet or pressurized suit.

About Those Quotes
Again, I did as best I could with penning those bits from esteemed writers to inaugurate my Moleskine, but you might not be able to read them. They are thus:

“Looking back, I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”
— Katherine Mansfield

“With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and a definite hardening of the paragraphs.”
— James Thurber

OK, off to the island. If I’m lucky, no coconut will drop on my noggin while I’m trying to think of the perfect metaphor for the big, blue Pacific.

With Your Help, We’ve Got It Covered

WritersEyes v3

WritersEyes v5

WritersEyes v7 cream

WritersEyes v8 turq

So, it’s pretty picture time! Well, I hope at least one is a pretty picture. Here are four comps for the cover of my book. As I’d mentioned before, the book is about how to recognize—nay, invoke your writing voice, and how to see stories everywhere. And how to net those elusive butterflies and imprint them on the page, whether that page carries fiction or non. I’d love for the book cover design to grab your writer’s eye.

Here are the chapter titles:

  • Chapter One: Don’t Muzzle or Muffle Your Writing Voice
  • Chapter Two: A Writer’s Eyes Are Always Open
  • Chapter Three: Slipping Through Various Writing Fences [writing across genres and disciplines]
  • Chapter Four: Writing Structures: Words, Sentences, Punctuation Marks, Oh My!
  • Chapter Five: Writing Distractions, and All Their Discontents
  • Chapter Six: Practical Matters [writing resources, links]

I’ll provide a closer look at the book’s content when I’m rounding the last corner on its publication. To push me to that corner faster, I need your help. Can you look over these four cover examples, and consider them for their design and title? You can see there are a few title variants that I’m mulling here, such as:

Opening Your Writer’s Eyes: A Guidebook to Go from Perception to Page
Opening Your Writer’s Eyes: A Guidebook from Perception to Page
Opening Your Writer’s Eyes: Go from Perception to Page
Opening Your Writer’s Eyes: How to Go from Perception to Page

 

The other questions are which type treatment is most appealing, which images and arrangement, and which background color. But it’s probably easiest for you to simply choose which of these works best for you. Let’s call top-left #1, top-right #2, bottom-left #3, and bottom-right #4

I’d appreciate hearing from you on your selection and/or any of the elements in question. I’ll normally don’t overlap my blog posts with my newsletter, but I sent this out to the newsletter audience as well, to get a broader sampling. I greatly appreciate your help.

Thoughts?
Let me know what strikes you most soundly in your writerly solar plexus. (Or your gut, if we can be that intimate.) Please email me at bentguy@charter.net if you’d like to cast your vote. Or if you just want my recipe for rhubarb whiskey.

Big thanks!

Contort Your Characters: Trip Their Expectations

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 Our Crib on Kosrae: We Never Did Get That Yard Raked

When I lived on the tiny Micronesian island of Kosrae, my girlfriend and I took morning walks, pretty much daily. We walked on the main road, not long after the sun came up, when the weather was merely remarkably hot and humid, rather than paralyzingly hot and humid. Kosraeans were up early too, and we often saw our neighbors and other people active in their yards. Coconut palms were everywhere on the island, and it was a regular sight to see a native woman raking the big palm leaves off the grounds surrounding the house.

This never made a lot of sense to us, because Kosrae has regular trade winds and frequent torrential rains, so that daily raking was a bit like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, only to see it roll back down again—rolling down the hallways of forever, forever. But it wasn’t exactly that our neighbors were fastidious. Not a palm leaf might be seen in some raked grounds, yet soft-drink cans might pepper the yard like, well, like unraked palm leaves. Many yards with food wrappers, too, and broken toys and all manner of other discarded miscellany.

We only received half a clue when one of our Kosraean friends scoffed at us for all of the palm leaves that littered our lawn. (Though nary a can was to be found.) Why didn’t we clean up our yard? Later, some other ex-pats suggested that leaving the cans and other things in their yards was a visible sign of prosperity for people on a poor island where easy cash was a scarce commodity. True or not, that memory makes me consider how expectations work, and how they can work in stories.

Cultures clashing seems a more raked-and-dried example of differing perceptions and expectations—one person’s troublesome palm leaves are another’s organic ambience. But in stories, there are more subtle expressions of expectations dashed that can work well to heighten drama. One brother in a family might always toe the line when it comes to decorum, the law, polite social mores; another might never see a law he wouldn’t scoffingly break. The brother with the halo might experience befuddlement, shame, or even an unbecoming rage at his brother’s “inexplicable” behavior. His expectations of propriety aren’t his brother’s, and a story’s plot might be impelled forward by the rift.

Not Even Spock Is Clean
We often remark upon the behavior of others—why did they do that, that’s not rational, what could have prompted that—when we know that no one is truly objective, not even our dear departed Spock. There are all kinds of psychological and critical-thinking categories that break out formal examples of things like cognitive dissonance and hasty generalizations, sharing some sets of behaviors: in the lofty tower of our higher thinking, the particular (and peculiar) way we’ve assembled our way of looking at the world presumes that others look at it in the same way, that others are motivated by the same desires and outcomes.

Stories can bank on such unrealistic expectations: a character will get angry or frustrated or resentful when his or her fellows “misbehave” by acting contrary to the character’s presumptions of how the world works. Why did that “nice” high school girl spurn her friendly classmate? What prompted the sullen office mate to start bringing treats for everyone in the office? Why did the ever-stingy uncle bequeath his lavish estate to the nephew he’d spoken with twice? These kind of plot twists can be disruptive and perplexing for both other characters in the work, and—if convincingly rendered—perplexing in a stimulating way for the reader.

I’ve owned a number of odd vintage automobiles, most of which had the ill manners to need extended (and expensive) consultations with mechanics over most of my ownership. Most people who buy old cars are tinkerers, but my best uses of wrenches have been as paperweights. You might expect, after having owned many old cars, I’d either stop buying them (because I can never afford the repairs) or I’d learn how to repair them. Nope. Expectations be dashed: I am looking for another one right now. Some itches can never be fully scratched.

However, my yard is very nicely raked.

Words Are Sleeping in Your Keyboard—Wake Them!

Writing by Candle

I begin every working morning with a pre-dawn ritual involving ear-searing animal cries and a hobbled, bleary-eyed march through darkness. Yeah, before six am, I get up to feed the cat. And thus the day—and all days are writing days, aren’t they?—begins. Think of Gustave Flaubert’s approach: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

What Gustave was getting at is that some orderly routines and habits built around a writing practice can give you a sturdy bourgeois frame upon which to hang your original compositions: metaphorical puce feather boas and thigh-high disco boots. Flaubert’s frame is: first there’s breakfast, then the revolution. And no doubt I can be violent in my work: on many occasions, I’ve slashed a worthless “very” or a “just” modifier out of something I’m editing without considering if that errant adverb or adjective has any feelings at all. Take that, unnecessary word!

In that light of bringing the writing mind from sleep to wake, let’s take a candle into the darkened room of my own daily writing world, so that you can compare your animal screams with mine.

The Morning Harkens
Once that cat has done its rooster act in my ear, there has to be stimulants down the throat: coffee. But for me, caffeine’s sweet song is best heard right back in sleep’s chamber: I always bring the warm cups (one for my sweetheart too) back to bed, where we read for a half-hour or so, and dazedly converse.

By six thirty, I’m up just to get down: sitting down to a 20-minute or so morning meditation. I’ve written about this before—the months I’ve been doing this have really made a difference in my days, and in my peace of mind, which can be elusive. That window-washing of the mind is either followed by a quick run through email, answering those things that can be answered in less than two minutes (and sending to the black hole of deletion those mails most deserving).

I’m trying to develop the habit of not burying myself in mail right off the bat, but rather getting whatever writing projects are on for that day in position, whether that’s reviewing where I left off yesterday, or writing article notes, or even putting a bit of concerted writing time in. Then a decent breakfast. (I rarely add bourbon to my corn flakes any more.)

Getting Out of First Gear
Between 8:30 and 11:30 are probably my most productive hours, either delivering words by the count or harnessing ideas to spur that delivery. My work is always eclectic: this week I’m editing two books, one a children’s book and one a book on the history of our financial system (and how it’s bent us into an unbecoming position). We won’t let the children read that one yet. With my broad experience with weddings (more champagne, any one?), I’m working on a long magazine article on how Airstreams were incorporated into five different weddings. The process right now is assembling the interviewees’ answers into something that won’t prompt any divorces.

Pre-lunch Launch
Unless there’s a deadly deadline, I break at 11:30 for some kind of exercise. That could be a nice walk around our semi-rural neighborhood, a walk around one of the many pretty slough trails close by, a walk at the beach, a bike ride, shooting baskets in the driveway, riding the recumbent indoors bike if the weather is unweatherable—anything to move, man!

The freedom to get out and move is one of the greatest things about freelancing. It clears the mind, gets the body breathing, sings lullabies to the soul. And makes lunch taste all the better. What’s almost as good as the freedom to get out and move? The freedom to nap after. For me, twenty minutes in some kind of hypnagogic state after lunch returns me to this world in fine fettle. I really recommend it.

No Swoon in the Afternoon
Back at the keyboard at 1:30 or so, bolstered by another cup o’ joe. If I have a main project, I’ll put a couple of hours in there. When I have two fairly big projects at once, like the two books I’m editing, I’ll often split the time between, so that each work feels fresh. When the later afternoon hours roll in, say between 3:30 and 5, I’m usually all about the housekeeping: check/answer emails, send out article queries, check my calendar for upcoming projects, deal with money matters (where does it all go?), set up any existing projects that need a push for the next day. It’s also when I will work on my own personal writing projects.

But at 5, I’m done. Shut the Mac down, go in and do some stretches, maybe lift some light free weights. (I only want to stay toned enough to easily lift an Old Fashioned or two.) Of course, if I have a heavy deadline, or some project is really flowing, I won’t staunch that river. But I rarely work into the evening hours, because my productivity declines. There’s dinner, there’s PBS, old movies, an occasional inane show, reading—and there is feeling the world breathe and breathing with it.

I do get the iPad out at a couple of points in the evening to check if any client or potential client has asked me for anything, and I might answer a few emails or look at a video of cats teaching French to kindergarteners, but I don’t do heavy screen time after dinner. My life isn’t in startup mode, so I figure 8 or 9 hours of the electron bath is enough.

Do Weeks Ever Really End?
I do work on the weekends, but as a writer, I don’t look at that as work. I’ll usually put in some hours working on personal projects: articles, or fiction, or essays, or like this very Sunday minute, this blog post—but none of those projects pursued with any brain-banging sense of pressure and anxiety. (Well, maybe never is too strong a word.) Weekend writing is an expression of my life. Except for those weekends—and there are many—where we get out of town to see some sights. San Francisco beckons, as does Big Sur, and myriad other places to play. And don’t forget the travel articles that can come of that.

So, how about you? When you night owls are hooting, I’m snoozing. Are you a burner of midnight oil? And some writers I know will only work some prescribed hours, say 10am to 2pm. And then there are those folks out in the corporate wastelands who can only work on their writing after they return home from the cubicle.

That takes some dedication, and I admire that effort. Gustave would be proud.

My Year of Sneezing, Chipotle, and Fake Jon Stewarts

Old calendar

I’m not that big on end-of-year summation or highlight posts. When I read others, I’m reminded of how much I’ve forgotten over the year, or how much I missed. Or worse, who died, and how that makes me feel bad all over again.

If I’d thought of it, I would have kept track of something more arbitrary or offbeat, like “How many times over the year I sneezed more than twice in a row,” or “Which days at lunch I reached for the chipotle pepper and then thought better of it,” or “Day I once again was sure that I saw Jon Stewart at the airport, but it really wasn’t him.” Because sometimes those little forgettables are as much a notable moment as having published something in the NY Times.

Mostly I’m simply grateful for having made it through the year, without major losses. Many people didn’t.

However, in reading some of the advice given by Michael Hyatt on attaining goals, I did decide to put a few in writing for the coming year. He convincingly says that putting an intent down on paper (well, in this case electrons) solidifies it in your consciousness: it clarifies what you want and motivates you to take action, among other things.

In that spirit:

  • I will finish the content of my nonfiction “how to see through a writer’s eyes” book by the end of January [preparing it for epub will take a bit longer]
  • I will publish my second novel by the middle of the year [again, going to be a self-pubbed masterpiece—after I do some master-piecing on it.]
  • I will get an article/essay in a national publication by the end of the year [shooting for NY Times. The travel pieces I’ve had in the LA Times and my work in The American Scholar don’t count.]

And a couple of “soft” goals, which doesn’t mean they aren’t hard:

I’m going to try to be more of service to others this coming year. I can too often get in a crabbed, selfish state, which is fear based. As I recently wrote in a comment on a Jeff Goins post, “I spent too much time working from the poverty mindset last year: too much grasping and the hearing of repeated refrains of the tired song of “me.” This coming year I intend to be of more service to people and to stretch the kinds of writing I do.”

So, yes, giving and stretching—not playing it so safe. But still playing: I’m going to drink more unusual cocktails this coming year, because my sweetheart was given an eclectic collection of bitters—what’s better than adding bitters to make all of life seem a bit more sweet?

Hope you guys had a good year, and that this next is going to be a humdinger. And if you want to write a few of your goals in the comments, who am I to stop you?

Cat Hurling and Other Faulty Story Mechanisms

Malibu on Table 2

My cat Malibu, pretending it never happened

Warning, unpalatable opening paragraphs:
My cat vomited on the living room floor last night. Before she did it, she performed a comic/frightening backwards dance, reminiscent of something the dwarf in Twin Peaks would have been envious of. She scooted backwards eight feet across the floor on her belly, haunches rolling, and appeared to be reversing the peristaltic effect of a snake swallowing a goat: her skin seemed to ripple the length of her body in churning waves, back-humped in high ascent.

Never having seen this behavior, I was fascinated and appalled. It was only when she produced the cud of half-chewed grass and belly splooge onto the floor that I realized that she was vomiting; I thought she needed an exorcism. After she’d finished her performance, she calmly reviewed the results and then daintily walked away.

Because I regularly turn daily events into writing considerations, while I cauterized the floor with an acetylene torch, I pondered how dramatic scenes/plotlines work in stories. (I also pondered getting a goldfish to replace the cat.) I’ve been mulling over writing a new novel that would be a series of connected stories. The lead character is a frustrated writer with an alcohol problem that’s preventing him from success in his work and his relationships. (No, this is not an autobiography.)

The Deus ex Machina: Story Salvation or Story Sap?
I’d been considering some of the major life events that can bring a person—or not—to their senses. Or perhaps make them leap off the abyss. Things like deaths in the family, loss of love, loss of respect, both self and otherwise. But I was also considering “artificial” things, on a deus ex machina level: the protagonist loses an arm in an industrial accident, the family is heir to a previously unknown fortune, a main character discovers that she’s adopted, with blindingly harsh effects. Or a cat you’ve owned for a while exhibits a behavior thought possible only by aliens.

Stories by O. Henry often have a twist in them that for me sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. The times they don’t work are when you feel the author is trying too hard, where the plot device feels author-imposed or a kind of window dressing. But some stories work up to their explosions in a way that seems organic: the suicides of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary come to mind. When I looked at the entry for deus ex machina on Wikipedia, it cited Lord of the Flies, where the rescue of Ralph by a passing Navy officer seemed to rescue the author as well.

An unpublished novel of mine uses the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 as a catalyst for the coming together—for better or worse—of San Francisco characters who otherwise wouldn’t have had the occasion to converge. The earthquake is a frame for the story, but its extreme drama isn’t used as a prop. Seeing the cat spill her story onto the rug made me consider that authors can populate their stories with all kinds of exotic and peculiar entanglements, but if the entanglements aren’t threaded into a congruent, evolving tale—with characters that are much more than manipulated marionettes—then all you have is, well, vomit.

And don’t expect your readers to stick around to clean it up.

Pencil Me In: Writing Prompt for a Rainy Day

Inject your imagination with pencil possibilities

Inject your imagination with pencil possibilities


Remarkably enough, it’s raining today, which I thought was now illegal in California. So, instead of traipsing outside for any Saturday aerobic exercise, what about hunkering down inside with a writing exercise? Writing prompts are a good way to loosen up the creativity muscles, and they’re more fun than a spin class. (Argue with me all you want—the rain is drowning out your protests.)

I think simple is best for a writing prompt: let’s consider describing an everyday object from several angles, whether metaphorical or metaphysical. Enter the pencil.

Pencils in the Real World
It’s notable how plungingly deep you can go when you start to describe an object, particularly one you’d never bothered to focus attention on. With a prompt, you just let your mind and fingers fly, and don’t get out any red pencil to edit.

Thus, a physical pencil is:

  • A slender wooden wand capped with a metal ferrule topped with a rubber eraser
  • A short cylindrical spear with a soft end and a pointy tip
  • A soft, breakable wooden shaft
  • A balanced, effective, reliable writing instrument
  • A cat toy
  • A vehicle for advertising

 
Pencil as Metaphor

  • An insecure pencil won’t write polysyllabic words for fear of misspelling them
  • A heroic pencil has broad, defined shoulders just below the eraser
  • A husband pencil never takes out the shavings

 
Pencil Sensuality

  • The light but friendly heft of a pencil in your hand
  • The agreeable noise a pencil makes when scribbling words on paper
  • The sweet cedar smells when sharpening a pencil

 
Pencils in Irregular Use

  • Staving off boredom by flinging them up to stick in those soft-tile corporate ceilings when the boss isn’t around
  • Pencil as ear cleaner
  • Pencil as stand-in for conductor’s baton

 
Pencil as Pun
That’ll put lead in your pencil (ahh, my adolescence, it will never truly end)

Pencil as Iconic Object
Often seen behind the ears of old-school reporters, circa The Front Page era

Pencil as Ironic Object
Gigantic pencils occasionally seen in sculpture gardens

Pencil as Shakespearean Character
Think of a pencil separated from its twin, cross-dressing (alternating wearing manly tights with bosom-exposing dresses), caught in heart-pounding court intrigue, strumming a lyre whenever possible, and finally getting married amidst much fanfare, resonant huzzahs and beer.

Well, I won’t burden you with leaden prose any longer. But I think writers have an ability to look at the most common of things, and see a story there. So next time you look at your salt shaker, remember that from a different vantage you might think of it as your pet, your boyfriend, your accountant. Even your muse.

Besides, the rain is letting up—I’m going to take my pencil for a walk.

How to See Through a Writer’s Eyes: Listen—?

Glasses_on_book_101

I’ve been working on a short book that has the working title “How to See Through a Writer’s Eyes.” Maybe it’s because I wear glasses and only see so far, but I’m going to suggest you get a taste of that book by listening to me read the introduction.

My intent in writing the book is to help people see that the world is built of stories—and that with a little guidance on where to find and use those sentence-building tools, you can be one of the builders. More on the book’s progress later.

[Not sure why, but it seems you have to click on the play button twice. Moses and the rock, I suppose …]

Trolling the Thesaurus: Timely Tool or Woeful Crutch?

Thesaurus Lopper

Trimming Words Is More Dangerous Than You Might Imagine

Yesterday, I snapped the handle on this lovely old set of loppers by cranking too hard on a branch bigger than what the tool was intended for. That’s not my first inappropriate use of tools—once I tried to boot-bust a board angled on some steps and it snapped up and sliced my face like a cold cut. A colorful reminder that genius doesn’t run in the Bentley handyperson’s gene. But mangling the loppers made me think of twisting tools from their intended use, and being the metaphorical sort, the thesaurus came to mind.

Relying on a thesaurus to write an article or story can be like using a bazooka to clean a bit of dust from your cabinets—instead of blowing away the dust, you’ve blown out the wall. Here’s the trouble: You may have crafted a sentence with perfectly good words, but then writer’s anxiety sets in. Couldn’t this sentence have more kick? Doesn’t it need an alligator belt and lizard-skin shoes to really speak its piece? How can anyone sense the weight of my words if a few of them aren’t blacksmith’s anvils?

When a Crossbow Becomes a Crash of Syllables
Thus, the unwary writer might fall into a quagmire along these lines: She writes a fine sentence for an article on crossbow collecting:

The shrewd crossbow collector will seek multiple opinions before buying a 4th-century Greek crossbow.

But then she fidgets and thinks, Hmm, couldn’t I give that sentence a little more oomph by substituting a few synonyms? After all, I did say “crossbow” twice.

The transmogrified results go like this:

The perspicacious crossbow accumulator will solicit manifold perspectives before procuring an antiquarian armament.

Add Seltzer, Not a Grenade
Beautiful, eh? Now, inject a little embalming fluid in that sentence, and you can consign it to its rightful grave. But that’s just a brute force example of how to kill a sentence with good intentions (and bad language). For me, the occasional, judicious use of the thesaurus is not only useful, but fun. Using one can be like adding some seltzer to a piece, not a grenade. Take this sentence:

When she heard the rustle in the grass, she jumped to the other side of the path.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but what if it’s not what you, the writer, is hearing in that grass, the thing that makes you and the character jump? What if “rustle” doesn’t have the sense of threat or menace that you seek, but another word doesn’t surface? Then you can go to the candy store of the thesaurus, because when you want a Kit Kat, and you only have a Snickers, you won’t be satisfied.

Checking out my electronic candy store (the thesaurus that accompanies the Mac OS dictionary), I see swish, whoosh, swoosh, whisper, sigh. Leaning my ear to that secret in the grass, I sense that “whisper” is the winner. Now you might think that’s adding artificial flavors to your writing, but not when you use the flavoring in this way: you are using the promptings of the synonym suggestions to season the sentence how you most accurately sense it. And like I said, this isn’t something you’d do to torture all of your sentences. Just the ones where you know there’s a better word, the word that makes your sentence intention glow. The thesaurus is just a light source—you direct it.

Tickled by Thesauri
So, a few ways that thesauri (gotta love the plural, something that sounds like it frolics in the ancient swamp with the diplodocus) can poke some quiescent writing:

  • Scanning synonyms for a single word change can often stimulate your thinking about a setting, character, conflict. Perhaps a full new paragraph, contributive to the work, might emerge.
  • The new word can refine a sentence, rather than burden it, or refine your thinking about how the sentence works in its larger setting.
  • And if you plain-out like words, it’s good fun to muck about in them. Take a word like “bungle.” Traipse around its synonyms and you play footsie with things like “botch,” “muff,” “fluff,” “flub,” and “make a hash of.” Tasty hash indeed.

Of course, you shouldn’t do much thesaurus trolling when you’re in the flow of your draft—let the words roll, and edit later. And don’t ever go into synonym rapture, where your sentences are so larded with fifty-cent words that they move like soggy dough. That ain’t writing—that’s bad architecture, where a story collapses of its own weak weight.

From my view, you’re no loser if you try to selectively fine-tune your writing by dipping into the thesaurus. Done with care, you’re still writing in your own voice; you’re listening to yourself with both ears pricked.

By the way, I’m going to see if I can get those loppers fixed. Good tools deserve a good long life.