My Thoughts, The Writer's Life, Writing tips

A Word, Please

Think of a word you don’t like – one that makes you squirm. Sure, it could be a common word like “moist” or “chalky,” but choose something edgier – something you almost never say in real life.

Got it? Okay, have a seat. Your word would like to have a word with you.

Word: Hey.

You: Um…hey?

Word: Do you know why you’re here?

You: Not exactly.

Word: We need to talk about me.

You: I don’t think we do.

Word: Oh, right. This is where you tell me you don’t need me; that you never need me.

You: Um…yeah. Something like that.

Word: Because there are millions of words out there and you don’t have to use any you don’t want to. Is that it?

You: Yup.

Word: What if I’m the right word?

You: I don’t believe in “right” words.

Word: Oh really. Didn’t you struggle for hours yesterday to find “the right word” to describe your protagonist’s hair?

You: That’s different.

Word: How is that different?

You: I liked the word I found.

Word: Chestnut. It’s a fine word. But why not badger or mudpie or UPS-uniform?

You: UPS-uniform isn’t a word. Chestnut was the right word.

Word: Sometimes I am, too.

You: But I don’t like you. That’s why I have a thesaurus.

Word: So, instead of “shit” you might say “crap.” Something like that?

You: Sure.

Word: Do you like writing?

You: Of course I like writing.

Word: Do you like good stories?

You: Now you’re just wasting my time. Get to the point. There are only so many hours in the day and I have a dozen blogs to read and then I need some pondering time before making a new pot of coffee so I can consider writing more of my novel if the mood hits me while I’m staring at the blinking cursor.

Word: What if I’m the right word?

You: You already said that.

Word: Fine. I’ll reword it. What if the story demands me?

You: I already told you. I’d just choose something else.

Word: You’ll compromise the story, then. You’ll talk about your hero’s badger hair because chestnut gives you the heebie-jeebies.

You: Yes. I mean no! Now you’re just trying to trick me.

Word: Look, sometimes stories ask you to do difficult things. Sometimes they demand a word you don’t like or a plot twist you find distasteful. Maybe they want you to reveal an ugly truth about a character. Sure, you have a choice. You can replace all the shit with crap. You can ignore the slutty actions of your protagonist because you don’t like slutty protagonist actions. You can coddle and mollify and adjust and fix and tweak your story until it’s free of stuff that makes you uncomfortable. Or you can just tell the truth.

You: You’re making too much of this. I can tell the truth however I want.

Word: Okay. Tell a story about a writer who hates me.

You: Nice try. You want me to use you in a sentence. Besides, that’s different.

Word: How?

You: That’s not the story I’m writing.

Word: Then look at the story you are writing. Are all the characters in it you?

You: Of course not.

Word: Do they all believe exactly what you do? Do they despise the same words you do?

You: Um…no.

Word: Then how are you going to let them tell their story if all they have are your words? Use their words. Tell their truth. The story deserves it. Your readers deserve it.

You: But…

Word: Or don’t. It’s your funeral. I mean your story. But don’t come crying to me if you end up with a shitty story.

You: A crappy story.

Word: Whatever.

Sometimes stories ask you to do difficult things. Do them.

16 thoughts on “A Word, Please

  1. This blog post was exactly what I needed to hear tonight. My novel’s beta readers want more detailed intimacy. I’m not exactly comfortable writing that, but after adding a couple of those scenes I agree with them that it makes the novel more realistic. You’re definitely right that sometimes you just have to do what the story wants and needs.

    1. The manuscripts I’ve edited that have needed the most work are those whose authors told me “This was really a breeze to write.” They lacked depth. Writing doesn’t have to be impossibly angsty to be good, but there’s something about being stretched that seems to inspire writers to discover new and interesting layers in a story.

  2. I think I have the opposite problem. I don’t often like the words I write, or the characters, or what they do to each other. But they insist and I submit. Maybe if I took more control, wrote what I liked, I’d have more stickability.

  3. I discovered this blog and now I’m crushing and dammit if I might be out $600 in the future.

    I enjoyed this post. I smugly agree with it. I don’t understand why some people refuse to write curse words. Even if a character doesn’t say it, they think it. But I guess then they just write 3rd omniscient and pan away. Slackers.

    1. Sometimes people avoid curse words because they aren’t comfortable with them, but other times it’s because of their target market. For example, in the ever-growing Christian fiction universe, you simply can’t use bad words. You can kill people at will, but every “shit” in your manuscript will be flagged for deletion. Some writers are fine with that. Some think it’s pretty silly. Ultimately, publishers have the right to decide what they want and what they don’t. This often leads to some sort of compromise. Does the story suffer? Maybe. Maybe not.

  4. I believe we should feel our way through the story as it leads us, having a life of its own. However, I also think “balance” is the keyword to keep in mind all the time. If we spice up the story too much with “bad” words it will burn someone’s mouth like the hot food does. It won’t be enjoyable just the same as when it’s dull or flat without any vibrant flavor.

    After reading your “Bad Words and Angels”, my first impression wasn’t drawn to the fact that you used the “f” word. But to the reason why you wrote such a sad story in the first place.

    Yes, in case you’re wondering, I am traveling back in time, reading your old blogs and short stories. I find your previous writing to be more interesting and more enjoyable than what most others are currently writing in their blogs today.

    1. If you’re “spicing up the story” with bad words, you’re probably doing it wrong. If the story asks for spice, that’s one thing. But if you’re adding it just because it’s bland on page nine, that might not be the wisest editorial choice.

      I probably would avoid using the word “balance” when talking about writing because telling the truth isn’t always a balanced act. In fact, it probably rarely is. But your point is well-taken. Lots of colorful language can burn some readers’ mouths. But I would contend that if it’s a well-told story, that burning feeling will be temporary, eventually replaced by pondering or wondering or a paradoxical sense of satisfaction after the last page is turned.

    2. Oh, and thanks so much for the very kind words about my words. Sometimes I go back and read my old posts or stories and wonder who wrote them. Someday I’ll blame this on Alzheimer’s. Until then, I’ll just enjoy that words – even words we’ve written – have the curious and perpetual ability to surprise.

  5. Steve–

    Really enjoyed this, and like how you talk about things being in service to the story. And how sometimes the story requires things that make us uncomfortable. I am suspicious of stories that don’t make me wish they weren’t taking the turns they have taken, and, of words that don’t seem to cost anything. And since I’ve written for Christian publishers, as you know, I have seen “crap” replace other words, even though those unpleasant words were probably exactly right.

    Hoping you are well–


    1. Nice to see you stop by, Greg. Your point about the cost of words is spot on. When the writer doesn’t pay the full price demanded by the story, the reader is shortchanged.

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