What are your crutch words?


What words do you lean on?

I’m deep into editing my novel this month. Searching for the best words to create people and places readers will see and remember. Eliminating cliches. Working for copy that is fresh and tight. In the process, I discovered I have two crutch words – words I use without realizing it. Words I lean on, I fear, because they’re so easy.

Look at these sentences from my manuscript. Can you guess the words I mean?

  • Sometimes Liddie just wanted to shout, “Get on with it!”
  • She imagined that women who lived in cities did not spend their days hoeing weeds, gathering eggs or milking cows.
  • I just know if I stay on the farm, Mama and Papa will insist I marry a farmer.
  • Papa said that when Fred left like that, it just proved his point.
  • I really thought after Illinois got the ball rolling with their vote last year that we’d see more progress in Iowa.
  • Thank heaven and the suffrage movement for the fact that girls have choices these days.
  • It was just the heat.
  • Mrs. Carter hopes that Mr. Roosevelt’s enthusiasm will convince others.
  • Neither reacted and she guessed that she was just over sensitive.
  • She watched from just inside the doorway.
  • Amelia’s voice sounded so oddly hopeful that Liddie looked up.
  • I was just joshing. Can’t she take a joke?
  • Kate’s gaze told Liddie just how naive her comment had been.

Readers at the workshop I attended last month pointed out the “that” problem. “That” is technically accurate as I’ve used it but it’s unnecessary. I began to look more closely for other such words. It turns out “Just” is a word I use so frequently in my own conversation that I just don’t realize when it creeps into my writing.

In the 160 words above, there are 15 unnecessary uses of “Just” and “That.” Nearly 10% of the words. Eliminating all 15 results in copy that is crisper, more precise, and stronger.

Of course, there are legitimate uses of just and that, so it’s not as easy as just eliminating them all.  But yesterday, I cut nearly 100 words by searching out these two crutch words. My writing is stronger as a result.

The “Find” function in Word Edit is terrific for locating words I’m so used to that I don’t even see them.

If your manuscript is light on words, these words could be useful padding. Having seen the impact of eliminating them from my own manuscript, however; I’d argue that using them results in weaker copy. My challenge is quite the opposite. I’m looking for 16,000 words to cut.

Have you found crutch words in your writing? Would you care to share what they are? I still have 15,000 words to go.

photo credit: chez_sugi via photopin cc

One month & eight years

In 2004, I’d never written a novel. But I thought I’d like to try, so I signed up for NANOWRIMO, the worldwide initiative that kicks off every November 1 with the goal of getting everyone who says they have a novel in them to actually sit down and write it — 50,000 words in 30 days.

In 2004, I wrote 55,000+ words on the novel idea that had been in the back of my mind pretty much my whole life. At the end of the month I was declared a NANOWRIMO winner. They even awarded me a certificate! I felt good.

I knew some of the writing was pure dreck, but there were some characters I was beginning to like, some scenes I was pretty sure I could do something with, and the beginning of a story arc. To work on someday. The certificate and the manuscript went in a drawer and life got busy going in other directions.

Here it is November 2012, and the air is buzzing with budding novelists stockpiling coffee and chocolate by their keyboards ready to bang out 50,000 words in 30 days. Here I am still working on the same novel.

It astounds me that it has been eight years since I took those first steps. Eight years spent on other writing projects, including writing and publishing my memoir. But all the while, that manuscript stuck in the drawer was never far from my mind. So a couple of years ago, I pulled out the file, dusted it off, and went back at the keyboard to finish it.

I’m making progress. My novel — working title “All She Ever Wanted” — is set in pre WWI, at a time when women didn’t yet have the vote. All She Ever Wanted is a coming of age novel about a young girl who struggles to have a career, to make her own decisions, to break free of the expectations society had for women at that time.

I’m knee deep in the second major re-write. Since attending an advanced novel writing workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival this past summer, I’ve launched a major rewrite of the first third of the novel, discarding a good share of the original drafts, maximizing (I hope) the conflict, getting my characters to act their age. But I need a framework, a structure, to keep myself focused. When NANOWRIMO rolled around, I realized this could be it.

I’m not starting a new novel this year, so technically I can’t be an official participant in NANOWRIMO 2012. Still, I’m using the concept to keep me on track. I started again at the beginning of novel and am moving through it page by page, discarding what doesn’t work, writing new scenes when I need to, gaining internal cohesiveness.

At the end of November, I won’t get a certificate from the NANOWRIMO Office of Letters & Light, but I hope to award myself one for sticking to it and working through my manuscript in such a purposeful manner, from start, hopefully almost to finish. One month plus eight years. It’s a long time, but the symmetry of  using NANOWRIMO to help me take the next steps in what I started so long ago feels right.

The best writing advice ever

When people ask me about writing – what they should do and how – I often find myself sharing the advice others have given me.

I’ve been fortunate to attend writing workshops led by amazing writers and writing mentors. In the ways of the universe, each of these leaders has given me the perfect bit of guidance I needed at just the moment I needed it. I received most of this advice as I was writing memoirs, so their advice was given in the memoir context, but I find that it applies equally well now that I’m writing fiction.

In homage to all of these amazing writing spirit guides, here’s their advice.

  1. Give yourself permission to write. New to the memoir writing experience, I found myself agonizing about what shape my final manuscript would take. The sequence of chapters. The number of chapters. Marc Niesen, told me there was a time to worry about that but not while I wrote my first draft. He said, “Put your editor hat in the closet and put on your writer hat. For six months, just give yourself permission to write.”  I did. I even put a sticky note with this directive on my computer, “Today I’m writing about growing up on the farm.” Six months later I had my book.
  2. Tell the truth. If you don’t, the reader will know. Mary Kay Shanley explained that memoir writers may be afraid to go deep into the facts, situations, emotions of what happened to them. When the writer skims over the truth, readers can sense it and the writer loses credibility. It was amazing to me that time and again as my writing buddies read my drafts, they invariably zeroed in the places where I’d hoped not to have to go. Mary Kay also said that a writer may not be ready to go deep and that’s okay, but that means it may not be time to write that book.
  3. When something needs to be written, it will be. Just keep writing. I’ve heard this from many of my guides, but I’ll credit it to Mary Nilsen who led a personal essay workshop. I’d come to her workshop with ideas in mind about what I wanted to write. I wound up writing about something far different, something I’d kept to myself for more than 30 years. Obviously this needed to be written. That’s the only way I can explain writing a 14-page essay overnight.
  4. Write the shitty first draft. One of the biggest barriers to writing is perfection. So in one way or another every workshop leader advises giving yourself permission to write the bad first draft. Get it all down and then worry later about adding polish. NANOWRIMO is one of the best experiences for pushing on. Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days? Sure! Just write 1,666 new words a day, every day, and never look back.
  5. Apply butt glue. I don’t remember the writer who shared this bit of advice at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, but I remembered it because it was funny and I use it because it works. American editor and novelist Peter DeVries spoke to the same concept when he said, “I only write when I’m inspired and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.” If I sit down to write, and commit to staying there until I do, I will write. No writer’s block allowed.

These are bits of wisdom I live my writing life by. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I need to cause more trouble!

I’m a sucker for The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s adventures drew me in when I was a kid and they still do. I just never imagined that the story of a little girl from Kansas could teach me so much about the how to make novel I’m writing now stronger.

I’ve been working toward having my manuscript completed by the end of this year, but my gut kept telling me the first chapters weren’t going to grab readers and force them to keep reading. In a quest for perspective and answers, I put the first 50 pages of my novel into the hands of total strangers this past week at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Photo courtesy of: theresnoplacelikehome.com/wallpaper

Imagine my surprise when, on the first day, workshop facilitator Rebecca Johns plotted the story arc of The Wizard of Oz. She demonstrated how time and again Dorothy faced obstacles that stood in the way of her getting her heart’s desire: to get away from Kansas, to journey to Oz, to acquire the witch’s broom, to go home. Throughout the journey, Dorothy had nothing but trouble. It was all those troubles and how she overcame them that kept me watching.

I could see at once that this was my problem. Therefore, when it was my turn in the critique chair, it was no surprise when I heard my fellow novelists’ main criticism – “You’re not causing enough trouble for your main character.”

Knowing what the problem is and knowing what to do about it are two different things. Fortunately, the workshop format not only identifies the problem but also helps you see ways to overcome it. I learned that I rushed too quickly past scenes with great potential to thwart my character’s desire: an unplanned pregnancy, a heart attack, even society’s expectations. As they talked and I listened, scenes raced through my mind. I could literally see in my head how to cause more trouble.

In the following days, more lectures and critiques of other manuscripts helped me see other areas of my novel I can strengthen. More depth to my characters. More detail to make my character’s desire vivid and believable. More time to let the action play out. But most of all more trouble.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to stay out of trouble. I grew up ‘the good girl.’ I know that I’ve been letting my desire to stay out of trouble guide my characters down the straight and narrow – and frankly – boring path. They need more trouble. And I’m committed to giving it to them.

Workshopping the first 50 pages

Next week is a big week in the life of my new novel. My baby – at least the first 50 pages of it – is taking its first steps at an advanced novel workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. For the first time, total strangers will read what I’ve written and tell me what they think about the story I’ve been laboring over for the past few years.

I haven’t been toiling in isolation all this time. My writing buddy Mary Gottschalk has walked this long road with me. She is also writing her first novel. We consider ourselves able critique partners, but we agree we know each other and our respective stories too well. It’s time to get others involved.

The first 50 pages of a novel bear a great responsibility. An article by Les Edgerton in Writer’s Digest (the Oct. 2011 hard copy version, unfortunately, not online) titled, fittingly enough, “Your First 50 Pages–The 4 Goals Your Beginning Must Meet,” points out that these pages must:

  1. Introduce the story-worthy problem
  2. Hook the Reader
  3. Establish the Story Rules, and
  4. Forecast the End

I hope that my first 50 pages do all that, but readers will judge whether I’ve been successful. Beyond what Edgerton outlined, this workshop will look at the characters and point of view, the balance of summary and story, the use of dialogue, prose style, voice. The list goes on.

Many emotions swirl in my chest as I think about this workshop, but fear is not one of them. I’m filled with eager anticipation. In spite of the fact that I just learned my novel will be critiqued first. Gasp! Past experience with the Writing Festival workshops reassures me that the workshop leader will guide the discussion to a productive end. Other participants will be honest and helpful, knowing they, too, will sit in the critique chair that week.

At the end of this workshop, I expect to have an understanding of what works in my first 50 pages and what doesn’t hit the mark yet. I expect to have clear thoughts to guide my next round of rewriting. I expect to know whether I’m still on track to have my manuscript ready for an editor and beta readers later this year.

This workshop is just the first of several reader hurdles to cross before my work of historical fiction is ready to publish. But, yes, I’m excited. One more step on the journey to my first novel.