I found myself reaching for a thesaurus the other day.
Well, “reaching” is not the right word; I went to www.thesaurus.com, which was quicker than finding an actual thesaurus and had the benefit of not requiring me to stand up in the midst of my writing session. Then I went into a dumb thought-spiral, because of course I did, when I remembered a little nugget of writing advice that goes something like:
“Never use a twenty-five-cent word when a five-cent word will do.”
Did I butcher it? I may have butchered it.
I take that advice to heart. I almost never use a thesaurus. Reason being, I figure if a word isn’t in my immediate lexicon, odds are it’s not in the average reader’s lexicon either, and it’s no good busting out fancy words just for the sake of fancy words if only a tiny minority of readers are actually going to understand them on first read. (And sorry, for the most part I don’t hold truck with writing that has to be read multiple times for the meaning to sink in. I have things to do. And so do the rest of us.)
Anyway, there’s another writing quote I like a lot, which starts off something like “writing advice is bulls***.” This is true, inasmuch as for every bit of writing advice you can find out there (and you can find a lot, if you go looking), you can find countless examples of writers — and writing — that flat-out breaks those rules. Good writing, even! “No prologues?” Surprise: lots of books have them. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs?” You may be somewhat shocked to learn that even this meager sentence has multiple adverbs! “I before E except after C?” Who cares, that’s why God invented spell check.
So you can ignore most writing advice. Except that the second part of the second quote (“writing advice is bulls***) is that “bulls*** fertilizes.”
What’s this to do with my thesaurus? (Sorry, my thesaurus.com?)
Well, you *shouldn’t* replace a five-cent word with a twenty-five-cent word when the five-cent word will do. But thesauruses (thesauri, my English-teacher brain screams but I cannot make myself say aloud) don’t just have twenty-five-cent words in them. They have loads and loads of five-cent words. And sometimes you want to tear your hair out when you realize you’re using the same five-cent word too much.
Sometimes you have to reach for the nickel term. Probably you don’t want the quadrant morpheme.
Point is, it’s just another tool like any other tool. Use it where it’s useful. Circumlocute it when it’s dyslogistic.
Every profession has ’em. Hammer, scalpel, ruler, drill. Depending on the profession, the tools become more or less important. A manufacturer or fabricator lives and dies by his tools; a
Me, I’m not particularly arsed about the tools of my writing. I have some tools that I like — Scrivener being the big one for work on my main project — but I’ve worked with other, less flashy processors in the past. And when it comes down to it, I could work on any clunky old laptop or desktop computer; hell, in my particularly motivated phases I’ve even typed project notes on my phone. Sometimes I’ll use a bluetooth keyboard for that, sometimes the dreaded touch screen. (Though typing anything of substance that’s more than a line or two on a touchscreen is enough to make me want to rip out what little remains of my hair.)
The writer’s tools, it seems, are largely digital these days, no?
I mean, there are typewriters, but I’ve given my thoughts on typewriters before: in short, if you think a typewriter is essential to your process in any significant way, you are fooling yourself and being pretentious besides. They’re not bad, not at all, but they’re impractical, and to use one is to needlessly draw attention to yourself just for the sake of using antiquated equipment.
So. Digital tools. Right?
Digital tools may be awesome and nigh indispensable, but to me, if you’re a writer, you can’t get away from the written word. The literally written word. You know: you learned to make them in grade school? You hated every minute of it? Your craft for creating it atrophied over time like a vestigial tail until now your written words look like the frenzied scratchings of a terrified animal on your back door?
Handwriting. There’s something almost magical about it, about putting words to paper directly using your hand and an implement designed to put marks on things. I do rather a lot of handwriting lately (and it’s more than a little bit of the reason I haven’t posted here as much in the last year or so — because what I would otherwise be blathering into the digital expanse I instead scrawl into my growing collection of Drivel notebooks) and I have strong feelings about it. A keyboard and computer (or, if you really, really insist, a typewriter… hnngggrrrrrh) is great for getting the words from your brain to the paper quickly — maybe maximally quickly (barring text-to-speech dictation programs but there I will grind my heels into the earth, fold my arms across my chest, and gruffly direct you to GET OFF MY LAWN). But maximally quickly is not always the best way to do a thing.
Handwriting, for me, forces me to slow down a little. Not a lot — I scribble pretty fast, and the crooked, haphazard stumble of my words on the page belies that — but I can’t write by hand as quickly as I type, not even close. When typing the words race out almost as quickly as I can conceive of them; when writing by hand, there are mental pauses as the hand catches up. Each next sentence gets to rest just for a moment, gets to simmer in the cognitive juices for a second or two before it goes on the page. I become more engaged with what I’m writing precisely because I have to slow down and I get the time to think about it.
So I take my writing by hand (but not my handwriting — because YEESH look at that picture up there) pretty seriously.
Then I went and did a dumb thing last year. I listened to a podcast featuring Neil Gaiman. There, Neil talks about process and experiences and all sorts of fascinating things (somehow everything Neil talks about seems to become fascinating to me, maybe that’s a character flaw) but along the way, he talked about his fountain pens. Something, I believe, about writing his first draft of American Gods in these stacks of notebooks using this series of fountain pens, and how he could retrospectively tell where he was and how he was feeling based on the ink and the color and all of that. Really singing the praises of his tools. (And of writing by hand, too, for that matter.)
And I thought, well, I’ve got to try it. This is a thing that a Real Writer does, I want to be a Real Writer, ergo, get out of my way while I plunk down some dollars to get me one of these things.
So I dithered a little bit before buying a fountain pen of my very own: A Pilot Metropolitan in purple, if you must know. I may have posted about it before. I certainly tweeted about it. (Twitter being the perfect place to boast about such trivialities.)
And I loved it! It wrote smoothly, but not just smoothly: like gliding across a frozen lake on skates made of butter. It was heavy and satisfying in the hand like a candlestick before you bash in Mr. Body’s skull, and the tip and the whole feel of writing with it was just so classy even though what I was using it for was so pedestrian and boring. It felt like putting on a dinner jacket to go to the grocery store.
It was my “Writer’s Pen,” the tool I not only wanted to use for my daily writing, but the one I needed, the one that made what I was doing feel special.
And then I broke it.
I mean on the one hand, the glib “this is why we can’t have nice things” quip is made for situations like this. On the other … I really liked my fancy pen.
I was preparing for my morning drivel session, perhaps holding a freshly steeping cup of tea in my other hand and my notebook and The Pen in the other, and it slipped through my fingers. Straight down, it dropped. Like a torpedo, or more accurately, like a Kamikaze pilot. Landed right on the nib (a horrible word for the business end of a pen like this, a word I never knew before I looked into fountain pens, a word that still makes me squeamish and giggly to use). You know when Elmer Fudd points his shotgun at Bugs Bunny, and Bugs sticks his finger in the barrel, and when Elmer pulls the trigger it goes off and blows the barrel out like a spent banana peel? That’s what the end of my pen looked like.
Well, looks like, because there’s no fixing it. These things — these nibs (squee!) — are machined and measured with meticulous precision to allow for air flow and capillary action with the ink and, well, there’s no repairing it. It was broken. Not only was it broken, but you can’t (to my knowledge) buy a replacement nib (tee hee!) for this pen — they’re just not expensive enough to justify it; you’re better off just buying a new pen.
And, sorry, I’m a teacher. Disposable income ain’t a thing I’m well acquainted with. I spent $12 on the thing the first time around, I wasn’t gonna spend another twelve bucks for a second one that I am surely equally likely to break given enough time (enough time, in this instance, being probably about three or four months seeing as that’s how long this one lasted me).
So I did my writing with a lesser pen, one of my old soldier Pilot G2’s. Until, a few days later, I misplaced that pen (having no particularly strong feelings for it) and had to do my drivel with a still lesser implement, a “Clik-Stik” out of a dollar store multipack.
But here’s the thing — as soon as I settled into a groove (which when writing by hand now only takes a few lines — a fraction of a minute) I wasn’t paying attention to the cheap pen in my hand and how it wasn’t my beloved fountain pen. I was paying attention to the words, to the process, to the writing. You know, I was paying attention to what mattered.
And then I rethought the whole thing. Having the fountain pen (and worse, relying on it) sort of flies in the face of my whole oeuvre: that brands don’t matter, money doesn’t matter, what matters is that you make the best out of what you’ve got, and who gives a Fargo if you’ve got the latest luxury sneakers on your feet or if you drive the fanciest car or if you have a full head of luxuriant hair? I’m a barefooted bald guy driving a twenty-year-old Camry, why am I mucking about with fancy pens?
Because I got distracted, that’s why.
I got delusions of grandeur. I got caught up in the tools of the craft instead of the craft itself and then I suffered this blow to my ego when I broke my tool. (Heh, heh.)
Which is easy to do. You don’t have to go looking for distractions: this is the 21st century on the internet, the distractions find you.
And you know? Sometimes a distraction can be a good thing. Sometimes it can be nice to try something new. Sometimes you want to break out the nice jacket for a quick run to the store. But at the end of the day, what matters is that you remember to bring home the eggs.
(Have I butchered that metaphor enough?)
All that is to say, I have been doing my morning pages for a few months since without a thought towards plunking down the cashola to replace my fountain pen, and my writing — and my thoughts about my writing — haven’t suffered a stitch.
(They’ve suffered for entirely different reasons.)
I haven’t thrown The Pen out. It seems too nice to do that, even though it’s now useless, to toss it aside like trash. It taught me a lesson, after all, and it was lots of fun while it lasted. But now, like the smashed-up drunk-driving car out front of the school during Prom week, it’s there to remind me of something.
And when I’m not using my writing time for writing, I’m often using it to browse writers’ websites or writing hashtags on Twitter. In that endeavor, I read a lot of writing advice. On Twitter especially, I read a lot of responses to said writing advice. And there’s a movement, particularly visible on writer Twitter (but present everywhere), that says all advice on writing is BS. Do what you want, write how you want, whatever you’re writing is all good and a-okay.
And maybe that’s appealing to a certain sort, I can see that. In our post-truth world, authority and expertise are dead, and the opinion of any schmuck with a cell phone and a Twitter handle can gain as much traction as that of a Pulitzer-prize winning, New York Times Bestselling author. And the thought that anybody can do whatever they want, be whatever they want, is certainly in vogue right now.
It feels good to flip the middle finger at the people telling you all the things you can’t do.
And I’ve certainly been guilty of a bit of that middle-finger-flipping myself from time to time. Heck, it’s a core belief of mine that nobody knows what the hell they’re doing, that we’re all making it up as we go. Sure, we pretend to be experts. But none of us really knows anything. Just ask any parent. Nobody knows a damned thing. We’re all stitching our own parachutes as the ground rushes up to meet us.
But when it comes to craft? Sometimes the people who have been there actually know what they’re talking about.
I know. Hard to believe. And not very millenial-mindset of me. But it has to be worth considering — doesn’t it? — that the people with publishing credits, to say nothing of accolades, to their names might, maybe, if viewed in a certain light, know what they’re talking about?
Take the perennial conversation around adverbs. Popularized, possibly immortalized, by none less than Stephen King:
Bloody avoid them, in other words. But this admonition is the source of endless strife in the writing community. Why? Because we love our adverbs. Tenderly, gently, softly, the way perhaps we love a pastrami-on-rye late at night. Look at that, three adverbs in a single sentence! Use all the adverbs you want, says the anti-advice crowd. Who the hell is Stephen King to tell you how to write your masterpiece?
Well, among other things, he’s a literary giant with scores of books and dozens of film credits to his name. Is he right? Is he wrong? Bugger all if I know, but he seems to be doing something right.
No prologues, says another writing “rule”. Why? Because a prologue introduces actions and locations and whatever else that may not be central to the story you plan to tell. Prologues are a distraction, a diversion, a spinning of the wheels when what we really want is to dive right into the story world.
Hell with that, crows the anti-advice mob. Write all the prologues you want to. Hell, have two prologues. Have a prologue to the prologue, why the hell not? It’s your story, do it your way.
This is massively empowering to the author just starting out. Especially, if I may say it, if they are of a mind to include a prologue in their work. Or gobs and gobs of adverbs.
Oxford comma, yay or nay? Which POV is best? Write every day or only when the mood strikes you? Outline the entire work or make it up as you go? There are as many rules and variations on rules as there are writers, and when you combine all the permutations — this one does it this way in this situation, that way in this other situation — then the variations of what “works” might as well be endless.
And for as much as the writing community argues for one way over another, you’ll find as many outspoken critics arguing the other way.
There are no rules. Write your story your way.
It’s all so alluring, innit? Taken to its rational conclusion, whether you follow every rule to the letter or you throw every rule out the window and blaze your own trail through the fire and flames, you’re a winner.
And on the one hand, I’m very much for that. If you have a story to tell, then by science, tell that bloody story.
If your stories are to be anything more than your own musings into the void — your own pile of electric documents moldering on your own hard drive — then I humbly suggest that you take the voices of the dissenters, of the eff the rules, do it your way crowd, with a grain of salt.
But Pav, I hear you cry, if we adhere mindlessly to the roles set down by our forebears, how shall we innovate? How shall we craft our own paths?
A fair question.
Consider driving, for those of you who drive.
When you got your license, you started with that little booklet that contained all the rules of the road. All the variations of traffic lights and traffic signs, all the on-the-road situations that might come up. You studied them, internalized them, took a test, and forgot all about them. These days, you know what’s safe, you know what will get you legally from point A to point B, and you know how to bend the rules when your situation calls for it.
But you wouldn’t throw that manual out the window. You wouldn’t just decide, flip what my forebears said, I’m driving on the left side of the road from now on because that’s how I choose to do it. I mean, I guess you could. But you’d be arrested or dead very, very soon.
And you break the “rules” of writing at your own peril. Death may not be on the line, but readability certainly is.
Does this mean we must subscribe to the tyranny of what the masses cry for, what the gatekeepers demand?
Well, if we want our work to reach people, to find success? It kinda does.
It doesn’t mean we have to like it. Fifty Shades of Grey was a bestseller. That doesn’t mean we have to hold it up as the gold standard of literature. But we have to recognize that, maybe, it did something right. Ditto for Twilight or Divergent or whatever other series you think was hacky and awful. Fact is, something in those works appealed to the masses. Was it right that they were appealing in whatever way? Who knows? Who cares? It is what it is.
This is where we bump up against the real world the way everything does eventually. Incidentally, this is why we get frustrated politically, and religiously, and any other -ly you can think of. Writers get frustrated because the world we live in perhaps isn’t the world we feel it should be. Vampire fanfiction shouldn’t, we feel, top the NYT bestseller list. And maybe in a cosmic sense, it shouldn’t!
But it did. We live in a universe where some truly awful writing reaches the pinnacles of success.
Does that mean that we shouldn’t write our own stories based on whatever rules we want?
Of course not! You want to write your story using an adverb in every single sentence, then you write that story. Prologues? Write five of them. Flashbacks? Have one every single time a character opens their mouth. Oxford comma? Use them at random. Throw the rule books out the window, but not before you’ve torn them to pieces, thrown the pieces into an oven, and detonated the oven in a supervolcano as a meteor strikes from the heavens.
You are a beautiful snowflake, and so is your story. And if telling that story means breaking every rule in the book, then by all means, break the rules. Every single one of them. Commit your own personal holocaust on all the so-called rules of writing.
But don’t expect anybody to read or enjoy your story.
We have the right, as storytellers, to tell our stories however the hell we want to. Rules and preconceived notions about storytelling be damned.
But our audiences are under no obligation to accept those stories, and we would do well to remember that.
Rules are there for breaking, no doubt. But the fact is, we have to understand the way the rules work together, we have to know what it is we’re rebelling against if we want to rebel effectively.
TL;DR, we have to think. Creatively, critically. If we’re going to break these “rules”, we need to be doing it for a good reason, and not just for the sake of breaking rules.
Authority and expertise may be dead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.
Go forth and write your stories. But maybe assimilate a little bit of knowledge from the people who have gone before you along the way.
When you hear something that matters, you know it. It’s a shock to the system, 1.21 gigawatts right down the ol’ fluxcapacitor. You feel supercharged, empowered, motivated.
I’m working my way through Save the Cat!, (something in me rebels against punctuating a comma right after an exclamation, but Save the Cat! is the title, so there you are), a tiny tome — giddy guidebook, prognosticating pamphlet — on screenplay writing.
Which is to say, on story writing. Snyder focuses on film, but film is just one storytelling medium among multitudes, and I’ve yet to see anything in the book that wouldn’t fly for novels, plays, games, perhaps roleplay with that special someone. It’s all gold, and I’m only 40 pages in.
The book is less bespectacled-professor-reading-from-a-musty-tome and more Morpheus-pulling-back-the-veil-of-reality. “Here’s a story,” the book says. “Look at it, see it, yes, it’s about these things, sure. But look closer. Strip away the trappings and look at what it is behind the mask.” Rather in the vein of Campbell’s monomyth, or Booker’s Seven Basic Plots, Save the Cat! is about archetyping, codifying, categorizing. Once you know the categories and the tropes that your story plays to, you can then maneuver more expertly within them; becoming the Han Solo to your own personal Kessel run.
Anyway. I’m finding it useful to take it just a few pages per day, so that I can marinate on the chapter I’ve just read without getting inundated trying to process too much at once (which is my fancy way of saying it’s my toilet reader of the moment). And today’s pages were all about making sure that your protagonist is the right kind of protagonist for your story.
Ka-BLAM. Thunderbolts and lightning (very very frightening [and yeah, that lyric has always bothered me, THUNDER DOESN’T COME IN BOLTS]). Just like that, I see why my trunked novel failed — my protagonist was all wrong. Or rather, all wrong for that story. The realization was like opening up a corpse for the autopsy and finding the spleen where the heart should be, the lungs crammed in behind the bladder, the leg-bone connected to the neck-bone.
Right pieces, wrong arrangement.
And while the current project isn’t exactly a stunning specimen of anatomical narrative perfection, it seems like most of the current appendages are at least in reasonable places for the phylum. Whether that’s by accident or because I grew a little between novel #2 and #3 is for fate to decide, but needless to say, this story doesn’t feel broken the way the last one did.
All of which is to say that I heartily endorse this book, as I’ve mentioned at least once before.
Save the Cat, read this book.
This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday. I misread the prompt, but by the time I went back, I didn’t feel like starting over, so rather than getting a word that starts with “oc”, you get a word that contains “oc”. Deal with it!
My name is Glen Donaldson and I am a most regular reader of this blog. If that statement sounds even vaguely like some kind of soul-bearing admission usually reserved for the opening minutes of an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting, allow me to correct that impression and say it’s not at all meant to.
Before I launch into the detail of how and why ACCIDENTALLY INSPIRED came to stitch a multi-coloured, metaphor-dipped square of appreciation and loyalty into my personal soul quilt, I should make a few things clear off the bat –
Matt Pavlak (aka Pavowski) and I have never met.
Living more than 14 000 kilometres apart on two different continents (I’m in Brisbane, Australia) it’s quite possible and more than likely we may never meet.
It took some serious arm twisting on my part to convince Matt to publish this post, which, if stripped down to its bare basics, essentially represents a fan’s glowing tribute to both the blog and its owner’s considerable writing talents.
Via ACCIDENTALLY INSPIRED, Matt Pavlak’s been hitting literary jukeboxes to make them play beautiful word music just like Fonzie used to since as far back as March 2014. I joined the party as a follower sometime during 2015 and quickly realized I’d struck pay dirt as far as quality blog writing goes. Since that time I’ve grown even more convinced the blend of worldly wisdom and hilariously observed, downright Seinfeldian recall of life’s micro trial’s and tribulations that make up the content on ACCIDENTALLYINSPIRED represents the very tip of the blogosphere spear.
This year Matt attracted his 500th follower. As he’s one blogger who would never think to stoop so low as inflicting anything approaching mediocrity on his readers, not even a single time and not even for a sentence fragment’s duration, I feel confident in saying the quality of his writing warrants easily twenty times that number of followers.
At the risk of labouring the point, if ACCIDENTALLY INSPIRED ever decided to install a paywall and charge people to read his musings, I’d no doubt be one of the first to sign up. With thought pieces that hit like the shock wave of a concussion grenade plus channeled wordery that, frankly speaking, rises on very regular occasions to be things of sheer beauty, I can say, quite unequivocally and without word of a lie, he’s that good.
By his own standards, Pavowski claims to have had a somewhat less than stellar year as far as writing goes. Regular readers of this blog will know he’s put this down to a state of mild disorientation brought on by the situational insanity of house selling and moving as well as a slew of time and energy sapping work commitments. Matt’s so-called less than stellar year would be most other people’s Pulitzer Prize winning year, and trust me, he’s not paying me to say that.
Before I launch into counting down my pick of his 20 most memorable posts of 2017, selected from more than a hundred published on ACCIDENTALLY INSPIRED throughout the year, I will address the question of what has moved me to cover myself so unashamedly from head to toe in brightly coloured nerd froth. Simply stated, in a world experienced by most of us as a never-ending series of mixed blessings (or put another way, quoting the insight of modern man’s answer to Socrates, Forest Gump – “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna git”), it’s a revelation to come upon something you consider genuine quality. And it’s kinda fun to celebrate it on the rare occasions you do stumble across something like that.
Here then are my nominations, counting down in order, for the best 20 posts of 2017 as appearing on Matt’s blog ACCIDENTALLY INSPIRED –
# 1. Never Go Back to your Alma Mater (June)
A trip back to The University of Georgia evokes mixed feelings.
“Going back to your Alma Mater is a little bit like looking up an ex. You do it out of pure curiosity, with the purest of intentions. Just want to see what they’re up to, what they’ve got going on. But it can only end in depression”.
#6. Toddler Life Chapter 68: Lack of Sleep Chronicles (June)
A guide to coping with alternative family sleeping arrangements while on vacation amidst “strange barometric pressure”.
Includes a profound use of the word “discombobulates” as well as a nostalgic reference to “planking videos from five years ago”.
#7. Fixer of Things (March)
Home handyman par excellence saves $300 and in the process baths in a warm inner glow of a job well done. Includes a contender for Picture of the Year.
#8. Scrub Up and Slice In (May)
“The problem is, like an insane spider’s web, every part of the thing is interconnected”.
#9. Watch out – There’s Girls Driving! (June)
An incident at the supermarket that perfectly illustrates why Pav and his family prefer to shop on a Sunday morning at 8am.
#10. Splinters (September)
Giving praise to the Gods of Carpentry and what it takes to build a kitchen bench.
Includes maverick use of the word “perambulate” and Picture of the Year.
#11. Cleansing the Stream (February)
A writer’s brain is compared to a mountain stream.
This majestic post boasted an inspired use of the word ‘panoply’.
#12. Can’t Complain (March)
Where Pav pops the lock on his formula for living a happy life.
Includes a quote from Ferris Bueller.
#13. Project Projections: 80% Chance of Bloodbath (March)
A gripping confessional where he admits the plot of his current novel in progress needs work.
“The plot needs work to be sure, but it’s more multi-knotted rescue rope with the odd loose end than formless hairball of half-digested tail fur.”
This is also the post where Matt comes clean on the worst kept secret on the blogosphere – that he loves a good simile or metaphor like he loves a third slice of cake.
#14. Spiderwebs (July)
Pavowski’s spidey sense tingles overtime in this classic post.
“Spiders spin webs because their spidery nature compels them to. They spin webs because if they don’t they will literally die. That’s writer-y”.
Includes sublime use of the word ‘topiary’ and another strong contender for Photo of the Year.
#15. A Burp of Inspiration (January)
Matt let’s on one of his favourite quotes comes from Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), the one about “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
#16. Who Ever Wanted More Deadlines? (May)
The motivating force of impending deadlines.
Plus a bonus: Matt reveals he’s accepted an offer on his (then) current house.
The day Pavowski’s asked his five-year old son if he wanted to go down to the beach and he replied, “No, I want to finish making my book. I’m so excited to read it to you.”
#18. Toddler Life Chapter 419 – Cite Your Source (May)
Where Pav observes his five year old son can craft an argument, make a literary allusion and cite his source. Admits also he grows to hate all books his son loves.
#19. The Fly (November)
The fly is that little idea that gets into your head.
Kenny Rogers is a quoted source of wisdom in this post that contained quite the buzz as well as the classic ‘a fly flew’ “obviosity”.
#20. Magic Signs are BS (June)
There’s no such thing as a sign that it’s time to write that novel.
On behalf of everyone who regards ACCIDENTALLY INSPIRED as blogging royalty, thank you Matt for a spectacularly entertaining 2017. Good luck with getting the agent representation we know you are seeking for your two novels and we look forward to reading another swag of true-life literary gems in 2018.