Strong Verbs and Other Good Words, Part Three: The Word Book

In part one of this series, I talked about strong verbs.  Part two featured a rant essay about the thesaurus.  And now we come to part three, which is about the word book.  It could also be titled, write the word down, stupid.  (For those of you youngsters, or people with short memories, I'm riffing off the slogan that won Bill Clinton the election, way back in the days of yore.  The slogan, "Its the economy, stupid," was posted on election headquarters walls to remind workers what the key issue was.  The more things change, the more they stay the same. Except this time I'm pretty sure that Obama doesn't need reminding.)

Anyway, strong verbs and word books.  Carrie's Graduation and Images of Word Book 041
Carrie's Graduation and Images of Word Book 045

Behold, images of my very own word book:  I know, I know, the photos are not the best, but I am proud of them nonetheless, because I so rarely manage to illustrate posts with photos.  They are clear enough, I hope, for you to get the gist.  My word book is a cute little (5 by 8 ish) purple binder with A to Z tabs and in it I write down, wait for it, words. 

The genesis of my word book stems from my MFA years.  One of my mentors, Melissa Pritchard, gave a lecture in which she talked about a word book that she had begun years ago and now could not live without.  I had a writer's crush on Melissa and vowed to emulate every single thing that she did, ever.  And so I started my own word book, not having the first clue what hers actually contained.  I just liked the idea of having a book full of vital words that I carried with me everywhere.

At first I laboriously wrote new words in my word book, looked up the definition, and then wrote that down, too.  A nice idea, and I do love all the words I've defined in my book.  And even though it is fun to leaf through and admire the words, I find this approach is not terribly useful.  After all, how do I know what word I'm looking for?  I have to confess that this wee problem made me set aside the word book for a few, gasp, years.

But since I've been on my Verb Safari, I am reconfiguring the word book.  Mostly now I'm using it to write down verbs.  Strong verbs, weak verbs, verbs based on nouns, verbs I made up, verbs that don't make any sense.  The best way to find good verbs is to start becoming aware of them.  And once you find them, write them down.  Make your own word book.  Write them on index cards (my new favorite way to keep track of ideas).  Write them on scraps of paper, throw them in a basket, and look over them every once in awhile.  Doesn't matter where you write them, but do it.   And while you're add it write down other words that catch your fancy, also.  You'll find your verb use and your vocabulary improving drastically.

So that's it, my three-part series on verb use.  If you find any good verbs, share them with me, would you?  I'd appreciate it.

How to Ferret Out Strong Verbs and Other Good Words

Big Word Hunting, Part One: What is a Strong Verb?

Have you ever read a novel and been impressed with the originality of the author's use of verbs?  One of the hallmarks of good fiction is the use of strong, original verbs.  Yet how does one go about finding these verbs when our daily lives are most often assaulted with weak variations of "to be" from every angle?  When I read a novel full of good verbs I sigh heavily and lament that I am not a good verb finder.

But of late I have deduced that my inability to find good verbs is a result of laziness.  I hate when that happens and I discover that something I thought was a congenital trait is actually because I am slothful.

Why laziness?  Because it takes more effort to pull out the thesaurus and look up a word then it does to hit Shift F7 and use the lame Word synonym finder.  And because it takes consistent exertion to look for verbs in your daily travels and readings, and most important, when you find them, write them down.  It takes energy to drag yourself out of the rut of using plain, ordinary words and passive verbs.

Perhaps at this point you might be asking, what, exactly is a strong verb?  Let us take a look:

  • All variants of the verb to be are weak verbs.  (Sorry, to be it is a harsh judgment, but it must be said.)  Poor old to be is so over-used that it does not pull up any fresh imagery (or any image at all).  To be is the work horse of the verb world, and work horses age early and get tired and sick and feeble. So send your to bes out to pasture and find some young fresh fillies, or colts if you prefer.
  • Verbs with an ing ending are weak verbs.  Yes, I know, the justification for using the ing ending is that it indicates time passing.  Such as "I was reading while I waited for the train."  However, a simple ed ending accomplishes the same thing in a crisper fashion:  "I read while I waited for the train."  I have a tragic propensity to fall in love with ing endings and so once in awhile, I must whip myself soundly and rid my manuscript of as many of them as possible.  Put those ing endings out in the back 40 with the workhorse to bes, where they can have AARP parties together.
  • Verbs based on nouns are strong verbs.  A fun verb exercise is to sit in a room, look around and start naming every noun you see.  What you'll discover is that many of our most beloved verbs are based on nouns. And in the process of turning nouns into verbs, you might stretch your mind a bit to discover some hot new verbs. 
  • Strong verbs stand alone, on their own two feet.  They don't need helpers like had, or would, or any other words that exist mostly to suck up to the handsome strong verbs.  For instance, "The policeman had run so fast he was out of breath."  How about "The policeman ran so fast he was out of breath," instead?  You get the gist.  Banish the helper verbs.  They can rent the room next to the AARP verbs and hold a wake for themselves.

In part two of this diatribe series on verbs, coming tomorrow, God and goddess willing, we will discuss the wonders of the thesaurus.  Until then, have a look at your current writing project.  What kinds of verbs do you see?

When Art Gives Up its Secrets

Yesterday, I wrote about the fabulous workshop that Darnell Arnoult gave for the Loft and talked about how she presented an exercise called "Finding Fiction in a Photo," wherein we looked at pictures (amazingly enough) for a full five minutes and then wrote about them.

I can't express how important this kind of deep connection with an
image or piece of writing can be to your work.  I started my free-lance writing career
writing about art.  Wrote a few facile articles that got published and
then had the great good luck to get assigned to a very hard-ass
editor.  One of the first pieces I wrote for her she rejected, and told
me to go back to the gallery and start over.  She insisted that I go
back to the gallery and look at the paintings until they gave up their
secrets and I knew enough about those secrets to write about them.

(By the way, that assignment resulted in one of my all-time favorite lines I've ever written in an article:  "Watercolors, like earth girls, are easy."  Yes, this was a very long time ago, a couple years ago after the release of the Geena Davis movie, Earth Girls Are Easy.  There are probably some of you reading this who haven't ever heard of it.  Lord, there might be some of you reading this who were not yet born when that movie came out.  But no matter how old you are, you must admit–best line ever.)

And
so I learned to deconstruct art by looking at it–truly looking at it. 
Anybody who has ever taken art history will be familiar with the
process.  I'd taken a year of art history in college, one of the best
things I ever did, and so once I allowed myself to sink into the
paintings I had to write about, I remembered studying art history
slides and doing the same thing.  And soon I recalled how much I had gleaned from all those late nights of leafing through Jansen's,  History of Art and memorizing the details.  (I still have that book–it is smoke damaged and water stained from having lived through a fire but I couldn't bear to give it up.)

When I began my MFA program,
years later, and needed to learn to deconstruct pieces of writing in
order to write about them these experiences served me well.  My dear
friend Cate McGowan, who had majored in art history, and I agreed that
a firm grounding in the field is actually a very fine training ground
for writing.   One cornerstone of a good MFA program is writing critical essays about literature, the theory being that one of the best ways to learn about writing is to read it, and my art history and writing about art background gave me a way into to do this.  I was accustomed to staring at paintings and sculpture and now I could transfer those skills and stare at literature until it, too, gave up its secrets.

So if you're stuck or blocked, don't overlook the idea of finding a photo or image to write about.  One great source for this is the Google image search.  You can find all kinds of cool photos on that.  Choose one, stare at it until it gives up its secrets (which may be quite awhile) and then start writing about it.

The Writing Loft Recap

I promised a run-down of the recent orientation weekend my partner Terry Price and I put together for the Writer's Loft, at MTSU in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Terry and I took over the program last March, (geez, it seems much longer ago than that) and so this was the first orientation on our watch.  We were delirious with excitement over how it turned out, mostly because of our wonderful presenters.

The event started on Friday morning with a three-hour workshop given by Darnell Arnoult.  People who live in Nashville, North Carolina, and really anywhere across the south are familiar with Darnell's workshops which are so full of information and inspiration I could sit through day after day of them, even if she said the same thing over and over again.

In her workshop, "Writing Out of Chaos, OR How to Write a Better Story than You Know," Darnell presented the specifics of her system for writing a novel.  She believes avidly, as I do, that story comes from character, and that the first draft is a learning draft.  Where Darnell departs from common creative writing wisdom is in her insistence that one can write a novel without knowing much about the plot or having to tackle it chronologically.    She advocates getting to know your characters by setting them in motion through exercises that she suggests.  And one thing I love about Darnell is that she is adamant that you can get a lot of writing done in 15 minute chunks.  You can complete a character exercise in that amount of time, or write the beginnings of a scene.

Darnell also has an exercise that she does called "Finding Fiction in a Photo," which is a very useful idea generator.  She passes out photos and asks you to choose one and then she has you literally stare at the photo for five full minutes.  Just sit there in silence and stare at it, taking in every detail you possibly can.  Then she has a whole list of questions that you can answer about the photo.  Things like List five observations about the scene in the image, List five physical characteristics of the person you've chosen in the photograph, what is the person's full name? and so on, through over fifty questions.  (of course, we only got through the first few questions in the workshop.)

The total of all of this was that I came away re-energized to work on my novel, and I've been working on it, to the detriment of all my other writing projects ever since.

I'll have more info about the other Loft lectures and workshops in the coming days.  Meanwhile, enrollment in the Loft is not just for people who live in Nashville.  We videotape the entire weekend, and since the heart of the program is one-on-one mentored writing, you can do it from wherever you live.  Check our website for more info, or email me at the address listed at the top of this page.

I Confess

I cannot tell a lie, because you have no doubt noticed, but I am a blogging slacker.

Two weeks ago I headed to Nashville for the Writer's Loft fall orientation.   This was a big to-do because it was the first actual orientation that my partner Terry and I planned since we took over the program.  And, I am happy to report, it was a rip-roaring success.

So much so that I got completely re-inspired to work on my novel again.  Not just working on it, but working working on it, if you know what I mean–keeping the file open on my computer, working on it every spare moment, obsessing about it all the other moments, stealing time from paying work.  That kind of working on it, which I love because its been too long since I've been in this space.

To my credit, there has been guilt.  Lots of it.  So much that it finally drove me to cautiously log onto my Typepad account.  So here I am.  I've not gone anywhere, just deeply into the novel.

Here's the good news–I took copious notes while sitting in the workshops and lectures that inspired me so much and my plan is to write blog posts about what I learned.  Um, never mind that that has been my plan for the past week, since I returned home.  I'm going to do it.  I wrote this post, didn't I? 

I also have a pile of reviews to post on my companion site, Bookstrumpet.  So stayed tuned, there is much more to come.  Really.  Trust me.  I promise.

And now excuse while I go look at what I wrote this afternoon on my novel.

Oh, one more thing–I was having some computer issues last week.  Like big ones.  Like my beloved Vaio melting down type problems.  Its okay for the moment, but I'm in the market for a new one.   I'm so tempted by the Macbook.  So very, very tempted.  I've resisted the whole Apple cult for years and now I feel it ensnaring me.  Help me, PC users! Not a big fan of Dells, but I've loved my Vaio.  I would like it to be less than astronomically expensive.  So if anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear it.  Has to be a laptop–it goes with me wherever I go.

But I Get To Write About It

Reason Number Gazillion why its great to be a writer: because no matter what happens, you get to write about it.  When your heart is broken and life sucks, at least you get to write about it.  And the worse the things that happen to you, the better story they will make.  What other enterprise offers such a fabulous inverse proportion of bad to good?

In writing about it, you will distill it down and see what the true story is.  From this, you'll be able to make something of the experience.  The solace of this is immeasurable, and I'm not sure how people who don't write exit without it. 

Even if the experience doesn't make it directly into the pages of my journal, odds are good that it will be transmuted into a character in a novel or a story, or somehow filter into a blog post, or even color what I write to a student.  One way or another, writing is alchemy.

The only thing I remember from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones is the anecdote she tells about a fellow writer about to get mugged on the streets of New York.  "Don't hurt me, I'm a writer!" the friend yelled.   I imagine the writer friend said that because she needed to write about the experience.

I just remembered another thing from the book (Reason Number Gazillion and One to write: it helps you remember things): how Goldberg, or one of her friends always said that writers live twice.  You get this, of course, but I'll explain it anyway.  Writers live twice because we experience the event and then we get to write about it.  Sometimes it is difficult to say which is the more pleasurable.

So, in these precarious times, give thanks that you are a writer.  And, when the check doesn't come in the mail, the man doesn't email, the weight doesn't budge, the words won't flow, the figures don't add up, just remember: at least you get to write about it.

Why Writing is like Drawing

I'm working on becoming a better observer.

Generally, I go about my business, I travel, I write in my journal about my experiences, and those jottings are too often self-absorbed treatises on what I'm feeling.  I like this, I don't like that, I feel so fabulous this morning or life sucks, blah, blah, blah, endless variations on an emotional theme.

But lately I've been writing a bit differently in my journal.  Instead of the endless scribblings that are all about me, I'm into an objective reporting vein–attempting to capture the essence of what its like to hang out in the Pasadena neighborhood where my friend lives, or documenting the unique aura of Ventura Boulevard, where I have appointments.

Its not that I haven't done this in the past, because I have.  But what has happened before is that all of my experiences have gone directly into the alchemical pot of fiction, to come out the other side the same base thing yet somehow different.   My new practice feels much more like a non-fiction, documentary approach.

And it requires careful observation, noting specific details.  It reminds me of my brief career in drawing.  Everyone in my family–all three of my older sisters got the art gene.  (And the thin gene.  Is this fair?  I ask you, where's the fairness here?) One of my sisters even makes her living at it. 

Okay, okay, so I got the writing gene–I'm not complaining.  But I did once go off on a wild hair and decide I would start drawing.  There's something so appealing about taking your journal with you everywhere you go and recording everything you see.   And what I learned from drawing is that you truly, truly learn to look at the world and see it when you are drawing it.

And of course, that is what we do with words, whether they are arranged into fiction or non-fiction.  I'm a wordsmith, not a visual artist, that's all there is to it.  What I'm learning from my new documentary approach is how insight grows out of careful observation and objective reporting.  By observing and seeing you really begin to get the gist of the situation.

The good news is that this kind of documentary writing can then be alchemized into whatever form you like–fiction, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry.  So I'm finding its an excellent writing practice.  And may I just point out that this is why writing never gets boring?  There's always something new to discover.

One of Those Days

It’s been one of those days.  I thought I’d take time to work on some of my self-initiated projects instead of all the work I do for other people (those pesky items that pay the bills).  And yet.  There was a series of emails that needed to be sent out for the Loft, and those led to a flurry of emails in response.  And then my friend in LA had called and so I needed to call her back and there was that earthquake so it took way longer than usual to get through because all the circuits were busy.  (Can I just say how happy I am that there was an earthquake this week, since I’ll be in LA next week?  This takes the pressure off all those underground faults and fissures, so there won’t be another one for a long, long time.  Right? Right? Right?)

And after that, oh so many things happened that kept my nose to the grindstone.  I emailed a couple of book publicists for my book review and author site, and went through the contracts for the AWP panel.  More emails.  A lot more emails.  Completed a long-overdue survey about the makeover the wonderful Typepad people did for me.  And so on and so forth.

All wonderful things, but not writing.  Not at all writing.  All writing-related, but not writing.  Sheesh.  The good news is that I got enough done–oh, except there is the wee matter of the next ghostwriting project I need to start–that tomorrow can mostly be devoted to writing.

So, before dinner, feeling proud of myself, I sat down with a glass of wine and my knitting to relax a bit.  Never mind that my son, who is way too old for this kind of behavior, was banging relentlessly on the wall of the family room asking when dinner would be ready.  I ignored him as best I could (he finally went and started dinner himself but don’t be too impressed because it was take-out meatballs) and concentrated on my knitting, pondering what lovely words I would be writing tomorrow.

And as I formed stitch after stitch (I’m making a skirt, yes, a skirt–check out this great book called Handknit Skirts from Tricoter) I had a thought.  A brilliant thought, actually, about a problem in one of my fiction pieces that had plagued me.  I am going to submit a story to my friend Linda’s Christmas anthology, and I’m going to be editing a chapter of my first novel down to make it into a short story.  I really have no clue how to do this, and less of a clue as to how to start.

Ah, but such is the benefit of finally getting one’s mind quiet enough for brilliance to flood in.  It helps, immensely, when one’s hands are occupied, I find.  Any kind of repetitive behavior seems to set the mind free for great ideas.  Gardening is good, as is lawn mowing, or vaccuuming, or sewing.  Walking is excellent.  I’m sure golf probably is, but I wouldn’t know as the one time I played golf it took me so long at each tee that kicked me off the course.  Anyway, you get the idea.

So now I’m primed to get going tomorrow.  As long as I start with fiction first and do no go to the email I’ll be fine.

Call for Submissions for Christmas Anthology

My good friend and colleague, Linda Busby Parker, is starting a new press!  Her first publication is going to be a Christmas anthology and she is accepting both fiction and non-fiction submissions for it. 

Linda is the author of Seven Laurels, which is a wonderful book that you should read, and she's one of the best fiction teachers I know.  She's a mentor at the writing program I direct, and she also teaches at colleges in and around Mobile, Alabama.  All this by way of saying that I know she's going to put together a great anthology.  I'm in the process of adapting a chapter from my first novel to submit at this very moment.

The guidelines follow.  Email Linda if you have questions, or contact me and I'll forward comments to her.

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

In search of well-written Christmas stories (fiction or non-fiction) for a new annual anthology, Christmas Is A Season: 2008. This anthology is being published by Excalibur Press and will be available early November, 2008. Short stories or works of non-fiction should have a Christmas theme and range between 700-5,000 (maximum) words in length. The deadline for submissions is September 20, 2008. The non-fiction pieces should take the form of a personal essay. Both fiction and non-fiction submissions should express some aspect of the spirit of Christmas: the meaning of Christmas; the religious significance of the season; the spirit of giving and receiving; peace; the meaning and importance of family at Christmas; Christmas charity; Christmas from a child’s point of view; the hustle-bustle of Christmas; the humor in the season; the sadness in the season; decorating for the holidays; the family feast; the Christmas blues; or any subject related to Christmas and what Christmas means or has meant to you. More than the narration of a single incident, each piece should tell a story, a complete narrative with an arc—building to a climactic moment and a falling away from that climactic moment in some form of resolution. The anthology will be paperback with a beautiful four-color cover.

What: Christmas stories (fiction or non-fiction) for a new anthology titled, Christmas Is A Season: 2008 to be released by Excalibur Press, early November 2008.

Word Limit: The stories and personal essays may range from 700 words to a maximum of 5,000 words. Longer pieces should be tightly edited and should offer considerable payback in terms of the quality and punch of the story or essay. (In longer pieces, every word should be essential!)

Deadline for Submissions: September 20, 2008.

Editor: Linda Busby Parker, Ph.D., MFA, author of Seven Laurels (a novel), winner of the James Jones First Novel Award and The Langum Prize for Historical Fiction.

Address for Submissions: (Submissions should be mailed via U.S. Post Office)

Excalibur Press

3090 Dauphin Square Connector

Mobile, Alabama 36607

Contact Information: excaliburpress@msn.com

In compensation for the short stories or essays published, each contributor will receive one copy of the anthology, Christmas Is A Season: 2008. Each contributor will also receive a price reduction for each copy purchased.