Mar 04

Beating a Dead Horse

Cliches! Oh how we writers hate them and are horrified when we find ourselves using them. We do everything we can to banish them from our heads. But this may be the very reason they have such power over us–the forbidden is always that which arises first, I’ve noticed. So I say write them down. I’m not saying use them, but you have to get them out before you can find the fresh take.

When the words are flowing for me, I put down the dreaded cliche (or equally dreaded almost-right word) and make it red. Then, the next day, I just riff on those words or cliches. I write down everything I think of in the riffage session because what starts to happen is the words go deeper. They start to line up and suggest other words and ideas. And when I have a whole string–I’ve had as many as thirty words in a row–I start to look at the chain I’ve made.

Red words!

Is there some deeper idea I’m actually getting at? Is there some other feeling I’ve masked up to now by the “wrong” cliche or word choice? Is my character screaming and holding a huge sign that says “I AM ACTUALLY SAYING THIS!” What is the story trying to tell me?

This is why those long word/idea strings are so important. If you just run through them in your head, you’ve lost your whole train of thought. And that train is leading you somewhere. You need to be able to see all the cars because the thing you’re looking for is the engine.

The engine is what’s really at the heart of your story. It’s the emotion that’s fueling the story in the first place. You might think it’s ridiculous not to know what that is–if you’re writing the story, you must know what it’s about, right?–but, just like in real life, there is what’s happening on the surface, and there’s what’s really going on underneath, and it’s not always easy to find, or face, what that is.

Sometimes you realize the engine is actually parts of two or three of the ideas you’ve recorded. Sometimes in the list of wrong words, looking up more synonyms for that one that showed up three times reveals the engine. And sometimes the engine can only show up because you’ve gotten those thirty other words out of the way.

The more you struggle with finding the right word, the more familiar you get with that itchy feeling that arises when it’s not the right word. That itchy feeling is a signal–you’re on the wrong track. You’re not yet clear about what’s really going on in your story.

Because ultimately, you’re not really struggling to find the right word. You’re struggling to find out which deep, quite voice inside you is fighting to get itself on the page. And all those red words are the barriers we put between us and what shows up when we turn over the rocks in our souls. No wonder I’ve got strings of thirty words! Give me words, dear god, so I don’t have to look at the creepy crawly things that live in the dark of my mind.

Sometimes the engine takes its time showing up. I’ve had stories with several word/idea strings in them up to the final edit. For those tough ones, I know there’s something not clear in my exploration of what that story is really about. (Dialogue in your final scene is another indicator of trouble–if you can’t decide what a character should say, something’s not clear!) If everything was clear and flowing the way it should be, I would know what word was needed.

That’s when I start again at the beginning of the story. We are building themes, symbols, and meaning from the first word on the page–we are expressing a deep emotional truth–and in a well-strung-together story each word and idea leads to the next and follows from what came before. If I can find those breaks in the links, understand what they’re really calling for, and fix them, often by the time I get to that red train, it’s obvious what word or idea needs to be there. But I can’t be afraid of diving into my own swirling inner world.

“Wrong word/idea,” then, is not just a stylistic choice. It’s also a red flag for something you haven’t yet understood about what you’re really trying to do. And cliches, then, are even worse–they’re the short-cuts writers use to avoid a truly examined life.

But what of the power of cliches? There’s no denying their power to evoke. And a brilliant writer can tap that power and use it to make a ho-hum image indelibly imprinted on the reader’s mind; but only if he or she can bring that inner world to bear upon it.

Cliches are the only way to tap into your reader’s mind and know what you’re going to get. And that’s where we can slam the engine they think they’re driving into the rock wall of their own expectations. Take this one from Margaret Atwood:

“You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

a fish hook

an open eye.”

Aw, that’s so sweet! says her reader after the first two lines. As writers, we know exactly what that reader is thinking: they’re lovers, they’re meant for one another, the reader can safely assume a hundred thousand things about how they function together as a couple.

And then the mental image formed by the last two lines.


From “warm fuzzy relationship” to horror story in six words and the reader’s imagination. The second image is as powerful as it is because of two things: the power of the feelings evoked by the initial cliche, and the power of Atwood’s ability to nail those feelings most of us shy away from.

Try and get that image out of your head. It’s been in mine for twenty years.

Feb 14

Pay attention when your writing sucks

We’ve all had those days, where we have to pry every word out of us and they only come kicking and screaming and when we look over what we’ve written, we just put our heads in our hands and contemplate a career in math.

Oo! This is sexy despair. I want mine to look like this.

Unfortunately, mine's more like this. Only with long red hair.

And we've all been here on those REALLY bad days.

Sometimes in those moments it helps to read other people’s writing. (Sometimes that only pushes us from the second picture to the third, but that’s another story.) So the other day I clicked over to Crescent Dragonwagon’s blog (highly recommended) and read this:

“Every piece of writing is essential to the writer, regardless of whether it works as a piece or not. Seeming unsuccess is as important as seeming success in our lives, as artists and as human beings.”

This is something I tend to forget. Mostly because if I invest time/energy/emotion in a piece, by damn I want it to work! And maybe, no matter what I do, it doesn’t.

And she’s saying (THANK GOD) that’s OK. You get something out, something that had to get out, and now there is space to write the next piece.

This is such a release of pressure, that not all our darlings need to be birthed into the world. Some of them need to live beneath the rocks, whispering to us, filling the void between the last good piece and the next one.

And then there’s that kicker, which she is so good at: “and as human beings.”

Why is unsuccess important to us as human beings? Personally, I’d like to succeed at everything, all the time. That would be fantastic.

But think of yourself as a stone bowl. The depth of your bowl is the depth of your soul; it indicates how deeply you can feel, relate to, and understand yourself and others. Now think of how that bowl was made. It was carved out. And that carving isn’t gentle and thoughtful–no, that carving involves metal tools and hammers and grinding and pounding. If you’re going to make a stone bowl with a piece of 00 sandpaper, you’re going to die before the first shallow depression is complete.

“Unsuccess” is the hammer–the chisel–the grinding force that breaks us open so we can feel. We need the failures, the difficult times, the brokenness that comes from daring to try something we’re not entirely sure will work, whether it’s writing or telling someone our deepest hopes and fears.

What we owe to our readers as writers, and our friends and loved ones as human beings, is a map of deep emotions, and if we keep ourselves so safe we never feel them, we sure as hell can’t write about or share them.

We all know people who do everything they can to stay comfortable, to keep their worlds safe, and they are not the people we go to when we are hurting. It is a truth that there is no one on the planet who is not suffering, but if we don’t turn ourselves inside out and share that suffering, let others know they are not alone, then no matter how hard the hammers come down, we will remain stones.

“When I find myself in hell, I stay there as long as I can.” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said this and it points to the exact thing we can do to make our bowls deep. He’s not saying “Go out and find hell and/or create it every second.” He’s saying when we find ourselves there (and it’s inevitable), recognize where you are. Let it work you, soften you, shatter you.

How do you do that? You feel. You don’t numb out or get lost in distraction. And you don’t go the other way and make the feeling so huge and dramatic it becomes nothing but a caricature of itself. You stay with it–you feel where it is in your body–you let it take you but you don’t lose yourself in it. You hold on to your perspective–“this, too, shall pass.” And you realize that everyone, every person on the planet, suffers as you do. This is the birth of compassion.

Hell is a gift we have to consciously accept–we are trained in our addicted-to-comfort world to turn away, shut down, and lock it out. But the edge it provides is the only one that can cut to our cores. And as writers, sure, but how much more so as human beings, we need to feel to our cores, reach in and pull out our humanity, look others in the eye and say “Yes, I see that suffering, I see that joy, I see that anger and fear, and I am right here with you.”

Success is nice. Enjoy it. But it is not a hammer.

Unsuccess is the key to deepening the bowl.

Jan 21

Is there ever a break from writing?

Short answer: no.

Ha ha! End of post!

OK, longer answer:

I’m sitting here knitting (yup–it’s a great thing to do when your brain is too tired to keep track of all the different threads in what you’re writing) and out of the thousands of images and feelings floating through my consciousness comes–“black.”

As in:


This is a Lotus Exige, which is the racing version of the Elise, which is one of my favorite cars in the category of “it’s not outside the realm of possibility that one day I will own one.” (The other category is “Perhaps in another lifetime.”)

So there is this word “black” and I drop my knitting (literally–I almost lost a stitch) and run to my computer to find the one place in a story of over eight thousand words where I say my main character’s Lotus Elise is red. (Don’t let anyone ever tell you the hopes and fears of a writer don’t leak out all over the page.) And I sit there, fingers poised, and think of what it would mean to make the car black instead of red.

Black: death, darkness, despair, secrecy, bereavement

Red: blood, overwhelming emotion, danger, shame

The fingers come down! Definitely the car needs to be black.

And for those of you who don’t think the color of a car matters, I submit this Elise:

Not sexy.

I know. It is a travesty. Avert your eyes.

However, if I ever need to indicate that my character is a complete moron, I will perhaps choose this color for his Elise.

Fortunately, my character is not a moron. Just haunted and broken. So much better!

Anyway, this is why writers always have a little notebook. When you’re hot and heavy in a story little things like the perfect word choice or plot direction or line of dialogue will pop out of nowhere and you’re fooling yourself if you think you’re going to remember it later. YOU HAVE TO WRITE IT DOWN AS SOON AS IT COMES INTO YOUR HEAD.

Einstein said he never memorized his home phone number because it was in the phone book and he didn’t want to waste brain space on something that was recorded somewhere else. I completely agree with this–and it’s another reason why I write those ideas down right away. Then I can “forget” them and there’s room for the next thought/connection to come up. Who knows where the twisting path of a story will take you? If you’re wasting space trying to remember where you were, you’ll never have the open space to see where it’s possible to go.

(This is also why I write everything down on my calendar. I don’t want to re-remember my appointments because that takes up my idea space. Plus it’s just stressful wondering if you’re forgetting something important!)

That twilight space between awake and asleep is another reason to have a notebook. Thomas Edison knew the power of the unconscious in this space. When he was working on a problem, he napped sitting up, holding a handful of ball bearings, which would drop to the floor and wake him up when he drifted off. When he woke up he wrote down everything in his head.

When I’m into a story, I have paper, a pencil, and a little flashlight right next to my head at night. When my characters start talking to each other at three in the morning all I have to do is roll over and record their voices. Again, those thoughts will be long gone by morning no matter how “unforgettable” you think they are. Grab them and pin them to earth as soon as you can.

It comes down to how committed you are to your story and your writing. If it’s burning inside you, you won’t want to miss a single lead. And when the perfect color for the car your character drives pops into your head you won’t sit there and say, “Yeah, that’s good. I’ll get to that later.” You’ll drop your knitting, even if it means you lose a stitch, and call up the exact place that color belongs.

Because that’s what it takes to keep your writing burning down your veins onto the page.