Repeated Words

I’ve had a lifetime problem with repetition. As in, I hate it. I don’t like repetitious songs (“Pumped Up Kicks” anyone?), jobs (don’t make me repeat myself, you damn kids!), or conversations (see “jobs”). Most of all, I can’t stand repeated words. You know that Beastie Boys song “Whatchya Want?” Mike D rhymes “commercial” with… you guessed it, “commercial.” Drives me nuts.

When reading a book, sometimes an author will latch on to a word or phrase and use it over and over. Sometimes — though rarely successfully — the repetition is done on purpose for effect, but even then it rubs me the wrong way. I’m currently reading The Terror by Dan Simmons and I really, really dig it, but his favorite word is “impossible” and derivations thereof. Example: “The creature rose to an impossible height, then jumped to the next spar, impossibly.” Sure, in that one sentence, you might say the author is expressing the impossibility of the creature’s very existence. But EVERY time the creature appears? Man. Now that it bugs me, the word jumps off the page and I find it distracting. The overuse of the word is putting an asterisk to a great reading experience. He also repeats phrases such as, “As dark as a Welsh mine,” but that’s different because it’s something the characters in the story would say or think in the time period of the story, and he doesn’t do it over and over in a chase scene! Also, there are less obvious words like “cold” (the book takes place in the Arctic) and repeating that doesn’t bug me. Henning Mankell uses the word “cold” a billion times in Faceless Killers, but it’s so matter of fact that it’s really effective. Understated, almost.

So maybe the problem is the repetition of superlatives that gets under my skin. “Impossibly impossible-ness that simply couldn’t be any impossibler.” I guess the skill in writing is embedding words carefully so they don’t pop off the page or saving certain words for when you really mean it. I’m going to finish this book, but the word impossible has no effect on me now. What will happen in the next attack scene? I’m not certain, but I already know it’s possible.

Becoming a Ghost

I wrote a thing about writing while at work a couple days ago. The whole idea with that is to squeeze in an extra hour or so of writing each day just to keep the thinking fresh. Obviously, you also have to write when you’re not at work. A lot.

People complain to me that they have no time to do their writing and then they follow up with a story about hiking or friends or weddings or Dexter. Ah. Right. You want to do all that other stuff, too. That’s cool. Enjoy. When I was 20, I told my dad I wanted to go to film school, he made this hesitant expression and said, “You have to be a fanatic to succeed at that.” I said, “I am a fanatic!” Then he said, “Not really.” I see it now. I can feel that same expression on my face when people tell me about their lives in the same conversation as lengthy explanations of how they’re working on something, but they haven’t had time to polish it. Replace “polish it” with “start it.” That’s what they really mean.

Here’s the straight and simple reality: when you are working on a creative project, there is nothing else. No other hobbies. No other relationships. For that window of time that you are working on your book, your film, or your art car, you must spend your time on only that. Friends won’t get it. Family won’t get it. They’ll negotiate with you for your time. They’ll make offers and deals: “Hey, let me buy you lunch.” They’ll give you guilt trips: “Your mother is worried sick. Think about your mother!” They’ll make threats: “I’ll never talk to you again!” Yeah, that’s the idea. But don’t worry, they’ll come back. Or maybe they won’t, but wait until the project is done before you feel bad about it. Seriously though, while your mind is stuck on accomplishing some goal, you can never pay full attention to your friends or family, right? You’re always half stuck back in your idea, wishing you were there finishing it. So your loved ones get half your attention and worse, your idea gets half your attention.

I’m exaggerating a little to make the point, but not much. I have a lot of really really great friends. Some of the world’s best people. I love eating and chatting and staying in touch with them in between projects, but now that I’m on this book, I’m not mentally available. I space out in conversations and minutes later realize I have no idea what we’re talking about. I may have even verbally contributed to the discussion, but I don’t remember what I said even a few seconds later. That makes me the bad friend. The only solution is to declare myself a social write-off and hope that friends will answer my calls when I come out the other side. Some will be offended, some will move on, many will be there when I’m ready. But the book will get finished and love it or hate it, at least I’ll know I’ve done it.

It’s not easy, but nobody who accomplished anything had it easy. I like the story of Michael Crichton who wrote every day all day no matter what. He was known for getting up at 2am and writing until 10pm with regularity. Vacations, weddings, funerals, and everything else was secondary. Sure, this was only when he was working on a book, but the guy wrote a lot of books. If you need a metric for how this worked out for him, he was married five times. Maybe he didn’t believe in global warming, but he knew how to finish a book.

Ok, so now you’re the hard core hermit recluse all boarded-up and ready to buckle down for three months. Guess what? You’re still doing it wrong. You can’t live in a vacuum. Nothing is more detrimental to the flow of ideas than removing yourself from the world. You need to hear people speak and watch them interact with each other. And television doesn’t count! Get out to a coffee shop, or better yet, go to dinner with a close friend or significant other and people watch. Your companion will know you’re not in deep conversation mode or small talk mode and won’t prod you for conversation. In fact, that person may be interested in listening to you hash out the project. Meanwhile, you can glance around the room and watch things unfold. Years ago, I had a writing instructor who said when he couldn’t get the flow going, he took his notebook and went to the airport. This was back in the day when you could go through security without a boarding pass and meet people right off the jet way. He would sit there and watch people as they freaked out to get to their flights or shed tears as they parted ways or jumped into each others’ arms when they were reunited. Instantly, he said, images flooded into his head for his writing. Something about being around people, but not with them, allowed his brain to free up and the ideas broke loose and started moving again.

This works. Remain in society, but haunt it, don’t live in it. Drift among people and watch them. Most won’t even notice you’re there. Don’t worry, you’re not a creeper (unless you’re doing this at the playground). If you have some willing companions who will spend time with you and don’t expect lively interaction, all the better, but keep your mind centered on the project. Meditation gurus suggest you close your eyes and focus on your breathing. When something pops into your head, you push it out of your mind and go back to your breathing. I’m saying you should do this but instead of your breathing, focus on your project. And keep your eyes open.

Wordsmith or Storyteller?

I have a buddy who is a lawyer who I’ve known since 5th grade. The guy has always had a gift for words that I envy. I mean, even the guy’s texts are funny and clever in a way that makes me jealous. He’s a great writer, public speaker, and conversationalist. He never stumbles to find the right wording when in a heated debate. It’s almost like he’s an essayist at all times. He conveys information concisely and breaks up boring stuff with carefully placed humor.

I’m not that way at all. I’m a mush mouth when I speak. I often repeat myself in conversation. I stammer a lot. Sometimes words come out of my mouth that weren’t supposed to come out until later in the sentence. Sometimes I combine several synonyms into a single, unintelligible mash-up. But get me in front of a group of people at a dinner table or classroom, and I can keep them entertained for hours. Some have said I have a gift for vocal narrative. If my buddy is a wordsmith, I guess I’m a storyteller. As I work on this novel, I realize that I wish I was a little more wordsmith. Let me see if I can break down the difference (in my opinion) in terms of long form fiction writing…

Wordsmith writers are great with description. They create worlds and characters that you can really sink into. They’re also good with dialog. The characters say all the right things at the right times and their inner monologues give a deeper understanding of what makes them tick. Their books are packed with information. When I read a Neal Stephenson book, I can perfectly picture the pattern on the couch in the room and the hairstyles on everyone speaking. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that many words. Sometimes I enjoy hanging out in the world of the novel more than the plot taking place in that world. But SOMETIMES, I wish they’d just get on with the damn story already!

Storytellers, to me, are acutely aware of the reader’s attention span. They build tension and pay it off in carefully constructed cycles. You know how some family members tell stories and they go on and on with way too much side information and never get to the point without noticing they’re losing their listeners? I never really had that. My whole family is great at telling a story. Mom can’t tell a joke to save her life. She invariably either mixes the punchline into the setup or forgets the punchline altogether. “Why did the long faced horse walk into a bar? No, wait.” But when recounting the events of the day, or something funny that Dad did, or something from our childhood, she nails it! It’s gripping! I think the more you hear a good narrative orated, the better you get at pacing. The problem becomes the lean use of words. You don’t add description of the environment unless it’s part of the story. You don’t quote the characters unless it’s part of the story. And you don’t mention someone’s internal thoughts unless it directly relates to the story.

Do you see what’s this kind of vocal storytelling feels like? A screenplay! In screenwriting, everything is about structure and integration. You don’t put anything into the story unless it directly applies to the plot or the theme. You don’t drag a scene out because you know your audience is sitting in a seat somewhere waiting for your story to unfold. And they won’t wait forever. I’ve mentioned in other posts that I’m finding the long form narrative challenging because I feel like I need to get to the next part of the story. I’m no wordsmith, and if this book is going to be readable, and not just a screenplay with a different font.

How do I solve the problem? I’m reading a lot. China Melville, Henning Mankell, Cormac McCarthy, Dan Simmons, Lee Child… they all use words differently, but seem to be able to balance their love of words and environment with forward movement of the story. McCarthy is laughably minimal with words, but uses enough so you get the idea. The others I’ve mentioned are great about description without clogging your mind. Mankell will say stuff like, “Wallender woke up. It was snowing again.” Love that! The one thing I’ve noticed about all these guys (there are many others, too) is that they don’t use much in the way of character description. They don’t talk about hats or skin color or favorite shoes. Pellecanos likes to mention the musical selections of his main character, Derek Strange, and while I like his books overall, I can’t stand those little side note details. Distracting!

So this weekend, I’m going to finish The City & The City by China Melville instead of writing. Trying to get that rhythm down where I use more words, but don’t stall out the story. I want to build moments carefully and pay them off in a satisfying way instead of dragging them out or rushing through them. Forging ahead, with patience.

P.S. My lawyer buddy would have done a much better job writing this post.