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Choice Words

When I give workshops, I'm sometimes required to read the attendees' manuscripts. Note: required is the word I've chosen here because we have to start somewhere.

But what if I'd used the word allowed or encouraged or requested? Puts a whole different slant on it, right?

Required implies that I must read manuscripts even if I would rather not.

Allowed gives you the idea that reading manuscripts is a privilege.

Encouraged? Someone wants me to read manuscripts, and perhaps I can pick and choose, or maybe I can go to the beach instead.

Requested means that they ask, and I could say no. In fact, I there's a good chance that in this instance, I will say no, considering that the beach is presently a cheerier prospect than a mountain of paper.

As for the manuscripts that I'm required to read, almost every one will include disconcerting combinations of words. Or combinations of disconcerting words. Or words in disconcerting combinations. Read on, if you dare.

Writers learn to use words that are active instead of passive, specific instead of general. Eulalie barreled into Samson as she rushed around the corner of the gym, not Eulalie ran into Samson as she went around the corner of the building. However, some beginning writers toss any old word into a sentence, perhaps figuring that if active is good, more active is better. Eulalie crashed into Samson (evokes images of Samson as a crash dummy, poor guy). Eulalie slammed into Samson (not bad, maybe even better than barreled). Eulalie flew into Samson (is Eulalie a bird? a bat? a 747?).

Maybe this writer ends up with Eulalie slammed into Samson as she rushed around the corner of the gym. Well, if Eulalie slammed, wouldn't she already have been rushing? Slammed implies velocity. Velocity isn't achieved by creeping.

So how can we get rid of rushing? Perhaps Eulalie slammed into Samson as she rounded the corner of the gym. However, if she rounded the corner of the gym, which is most likely a 90-degree angle, that may be a too-confusing picture for the reader, whose brain is already in shock from Eulalie's slamming, not to mention that if Eulalie slammed into him, Samson may be lying on the ground, further complicating the picture. With all these problems in this one sentence, it makes a person wonder how anything at all gets written, not to mention how I'm going to have time to go to the beach.

Also, Eulalie would be better off if she didn't go near the gym at all. After school, she should hie herself off to the parking lot where she'll meet Dwain, the love of her life, who smells like Brut instead of sweaty gym socks.

But that's another column. Read More 
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What I'm Reading This Week

Readers often ask me what I'm reading, so here goes:

The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell
Marriage And Other Acts of Charity by Kate Braestrup
The Water's Lovely by Ruth Rendell
The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg
Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

And yes, I started and will finish all of them this week.

Let me know what you're reading! Read More 
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Write What You Know About

One of the bits of hackneyed advice often heaped upon wannabe writers is Write What You Know.

How this became the gospel preached by writing teachers, English professors, and editors is a mystery to me. It may have to do with the fact that most writing teachers, English professors, and editors haven't earned a living as working writers. Here's my dictum for purveyors of such nonsense: Teach What You Know. You obviously don't know a heck of a lot about writing. Read More 
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Where do you get your ideas?

When people learn I'm a writer, the first question they ask is, "Where do you get your ideas?"

Where don't I get ideas? For instance, maybe someone is asking me that very question in  Read More 
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