Thursday, April 29, 2010

We Can Do Better

Every once in a while—okay, it happens all the time—I will do or say something that causes my wife to roll her eyes. Today’s post happens to be about one of those moments. Now, I’ll admit up front it's a personal quirk. To date, I haven't seen anyone raise a similar objection; and likewise, you may not find this as annoying as I do. However, I have recently noticed a growing lack of creativity in the written word. Without exposing the writers, here are a few examples:

  • She got murdered by her husband, who soon realized that she was faithful after all.
  • [He] got in the truck and pulled the door shut, bringing with him the smell of damp denim and the ozone odor of the storm.
  • While the cost of Greek debt has spiked higher in recent weeks, the situation for the Euro area, one of the most important economic blocks in the world, just got more dire as Greek bond ratings were cut to junk status.

Like many of you, I have spent considerable effort, time and money trying to advance my craft. My shelves are full of material, fiction and otherwise. I have studied books on writing that deal with dialogue, plot, characters, and description; in fact, I could almost set aside a shelf just for this collection alone. I also have a cabinet drawer stuffed with collected magazines, from both The Writer and Writer’s Digest. Like you, I have done all of this in order to learn style, to study the rules and to improve. Even now, I am reading a good book on grammar, as boring as that may sound to some of you.

As a writer who has broken many rules, it would be hypocritical of me to suggest that writers stick to the strict rules of grammar, or to suggest there is a correct way to write, when it can stifle their voice. Still, I have observed some writing, and specifically some word use, that hit my brain like a room full of colicky babies. The use of Got is just one of them.

Using as a tool, I looked up the word for today’s post. Here is what I found:

Got –verb
a pt. and pp. of get.

–auxiliary verb
Informal. must; have got (fol. by an infinitive).
As in: You have got to see this movie. (my example)

verb,got or (Archaic ) gat; got or got•ten; get•ting

Then the website offered practically a scroll of examples. Here are a few:

  • to receive or come to have possession, use, or enjoyment of: to get a birthday present; to get a pension.
  • to cause to be in one's possession or succeed in having available for one's use or enjoyment; obtain; acquire: to get a good price after bargaining; to get oil by drilling; to get information.
  • to go after, take hold of, and bring (something) for one's own or for another's purposes; fetch: Would you get the milk from the refrigerator for me?
  • to cause or cause to become, to do, to move, etc., as specified; effect: to get one's hair cut; to get a person drunk; to get a fire to burn; to get a dog out of a room.

And that is just a few. But there are more, my friends. Oh yes, there are far more examples. Even using it as slang, we can find the following:

  • To tell someone to leave: Get out!
  • To escape: He got away.
  • Vulgar idioms: Get off, Get it on, Get some.

I could keep going. However, I think you understand. (Note: Other people would have probably said, “I think you get it.”)

Years ago, I read The Rape of the A.P.E., a book by Allan Sherman, the same guy who penned the song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh.” In that book, he devoted a whole chapter to the F-bomb and its versatility in the English language. Instead of saying that person made a mess of things, we tend to say: “He f---ed up.” Instead of saying that person is in serious trouble, we say: “Oh, he’s f---ed.” Somewhere along the road, people opted for the easy way, like buying a Whopper or a Happy Meal, and started using slang in place of the legitimate.

I submit that the overwhelming use of Get and Got has fallen to the same status. Just listen to the news on any given night, and I’m sure you’ll hear it. Read a book, and you’ll probably find it there too. I’ve already given you a couple examples.

The overwhelming use, however, should not mean that it’s okay in every circumstance.

I don’t have anyone to support me on this, but here is my rule when using Get or Got in writing fiction: In dialogue or monologue, it’s okay; in exposition, try to find another way. When the character uses the words in dialogue, it reflects his education, his culture. When the narrator uses it, however, it reflects upon the writer. And not in a good way.

Not to be hypocritical, for I can be the worst of sinners. In everyday language, I catch myself using variations in speech, and I'm often stopping to correct the problem. My kids are probably thinking: Jeez, dad, even I can talk better than that. The misuse of the word has also found its way into my writing. In fact, while reading through the manuscript of my novel, I noticed multiple transgressions. I circled every one. After revision, with the exception of dialogue, I'll probably hit many of them with a squirt of the writer's bug spray: the Delete key.

Again, this is probably just me.

Other news:

This morning, I finished a first draft on a short story. I am excited about it for two reasons. First, it involves a plot device that has been on the mental shelf for a couple of years, and I’m glad I finally found the story behind the story. I’m also excited because it’s the first new short story I have written since before I started the novel. It’s been a while.

And speaking of the novel, I had lunch with a friend the other day. He’s a doctor, and he freely gave up some time to discuss a couple of areas in my novel. I have also sent out e-mails to other friends to discuss separate issues related to plot devices. I am in debt to all of these wonderful people.

Until next time…

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sometimes You Have to Laugh

I had to laugh at myself this morning. While reading my manuscript, I came to a spot where I pulled away and thought: What the...?! Now, how did that happen? Then, after I remembered the chain of events, I shook my head and started laughing.

As some of you already know, writing a novel is an evolutionary process. It's a living and growing organism that changes from what you originally thought to what finally forms as the finished project. For those who walk the line without a net (i.e., the non-outliners) writing is a day-to-day path of discovery. Even for those who use a net, the process can sometimes generate a burst of creativity and step off the line. Either way, writing a first draft often leaves an open door, allowing for errors in sentences and plots and scene structures.

As for me, I'm an outliner. I like to make notes and sketch out scenes ahead of time so I know where I'm going. Still, there were points while writing the novel when I had to backtrack and write in additional information. While reading my manuscript this morning, I encountered one such moment where the backtracking didn't work out so well. My protaganist was on a long-distance phone call with a witness when suddenly the writing appeared like the two were side-by-side, looking each other in the eye. Thinking back, I know how it happened. I had a new thought, liked it, and then retraced my steps to add the new information through the dialogue, only to forget which scene I was in, the one where they were on the phone or the one (later in the story) where they were actually sitting at a table in a restaurant.

It's at a moment like this when I am so thankful for the revision process. Ernest Hemingway has been reported as saying, "All first drafts are shit." Going through my manuscript, I have seen plenty of opportunities to clear out the muck. Do I need to chastise myself? Probably, but not too much. After all, it is only the first draft. Now is the time to fix the dumb stuff; and like I mentioned in my last post, my first attempt at a novel certainly shows the need for improvement.

At least I can laugh.

How about you? Did you have moments while reading your first draft where you found yourself laughing? Or maybe you cried instead?

Other News:

While reading through the manuscript, I've been making notes regarding the need for research. Already, I've asked around to visit with certain people and their areas of work. Some scenes demand my physical presence so that I can write the details correctly. When readers finish with my novel, I want them to say, "So that's what west Texas looks like."

Until next time...

Friday, April 9, 2010

Diving Back In

Do you remember the time when you took that first graceful leap off the high dive? If you were like me, it wasn’t graceful. And it wasn’t really a leap either. More like stepping out into nothing and then dropping straight down. And in your mind, you prayed to God—something you may have never done before—that you would do whatever He called you to, just as long as His mighty hand swooped down and saved you from your act of stupidity. Which you never would have done, by the way, if it weren’t for the long line of kids behind you, each one with an accusing smirk and eyes that said: What, are you scared?

So down you went, your eyelids squeezed tight, your teeth clenched, and your cheeks ballooned out like Dizzy Gillespie. Your spine stiffened, every bone and muscle bracing for the impact. You even pinched off your nose, mashing flesh to cartilage in order to avoid a gushing of water that would almost certainly feel like a brain enema. (Assuming, of course, you had any brains left.) And then, realizing that God’s miraculous hand was nowhere around, your prayer turned from “God help me!” to a long trailing “Aaaeeeee!” an ancient cry in a Cro-Magnon language programmed within the structure of your double-helix, and that literally translates into: “Please, no belly flop. Anything but a belly flop!” And you uttered that cry because deep down you hoped your leap of faith wouldn’t also dish out a double helping of humiliation to go with the gallon of bile-tasting fear you had just swallowed.

Finally, you hit the water and realized it wasn’t all that bad. Sure it wasn’t pretty. In fact, if there were any Olympic judges around, they might have gently asked you to leave and never come back. After all, they have standards and seeing a boy (in my case) climb out of the water with the waistband of his swim suit now tucked under his armpits didn’t garner any points for style. Still, you survived. And the next words out of your mouth weren’t about your relief to feel the earth beneath your feet or the air in your lungs. Instead, you turned to your friend and said, “Let’s do that again.”

If you’ve lived long enough (and by reading this, you have apparently lived to see the sun rise and fall on the other side of that high dive) you know that life is full of experiences like this. The very things that at one time had terrorized you now don’t even raise a heartbeat. And while you didn’t overcome with grace and style, you still overcame. You have the t-shirt to prove it.

NaNoWriMo 2009 was like that for me. Coaxed onto the ladder by a friend, I climbed up to the diving board, snapped on a pair of angry eyes to stare my fear in the face, and then took the plunge. Looking back on the performance, now with a printed copy of the manuscript in my hands, I see that some parts weren’t altogether pretty. There are missed words. There’s a point where I changed the spelling of a character’s name (from Lauren to Laura). And then there are sentences that would make even the likes of Charles Dickens cross his eyes.

Still, I am looking at my manuscript with a sense of wonder and pride. I took the jump and found out it wasn’t all that bad. There are places in the novel where I find myself smiling and thinking: That’ll do just fine.

The plan right now is to read it completely through with fresh eyes, making some notes along the way. I want to immerse myself back into the story, allowing its juices to seep into my mind. I want to experience the story as a reader might. Then, once I’m finished, I’ll venture back through to make the necessary changes.

So far, the experience is awesome. The honeymoon is still there. And the nice thing? I do have the t-shirt.

How about you? What was your first novel writing experience like? Is the glow still there? I would love to read about it.

Until next time…