Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The trouble with smiling

Earlier this morning, I came across this hilarious blog post by Elizabeth Stark, contemplating what would have happened if other writers had taken a stab at the Twilight franchise. Much hilarity ensued. Intrigued, I then followed that article up with this one, wherein Ms. Stark gleefully substitutes some oft-used phrases in Twilight with other, slightly more expressive verbs. Again, much hilarity. (The great thing about living alone is that you can cackle to your heart's content at all hours of the day, and no one will think you're insane.)

Of course, once the laughter had subsided, I got to thinking. I am always heartened, on some level, to hear stories of writers whose editors save them from many a mishap. As one of the comments on Ms. Stark's article pointed out, the later books in the Twilight series are strengthened by a greater grip of editorial control; somewhere along the line, it would seem, her editorial team got wise to all of the repetition, and tried to do 'way with it as best they could. Whether or not they succeeded, ultimately, is anyone's guess. But I've talked about my not-so-secret hate/love of the Twilight franchise before, so perhaps it will come as no surprise when I concede the point that, iffy diction aside, Stephenie Meyer certainly knows how to do something with regard to books. You can't write a four-book series in which precious little happens and garner the kind of readership that Meyer has without doing something right.

Anyway, what I wanted to touch on today was that idea/presence of sloppy diction in Meyer's novels. As a former writing student, I think I can safely say that sloppy diction, at least in the eyes of my professors, was right up there with murder and other heinous offenses.

Trouble is, though--I worry that I use sloppy diction all of the time.

Ten years or so ago, a fellow student at UVic explained it to me this way: Think of it like a game. You get one point for every adverb, two points for unusual adjectives, and three points for excellent verbs. No smiling or nodding allowed! My instructor at the time put it a little less diplomatically -- on the front page of my first story for workshop that year, she said this: The first page contains the weakest writing in the story. Diction is sloppy and dull, and your verb usage has little to no imagination.

The horror! Oh, the horror! Ever since then, it would seem, I've been labouring in a small cocoon of fear, always wondering if my diction is good enough. But what does diction mean, truly? Sometimes I worry that I still don't know. The word is defined, via the online dictionary, as a style of speaking or writing as dependent upon choice of words: good diction ... I don't know about you, but that still doesn't clear it up for me. (One could say that the definition itself suffers from bad diction, but hey now. That would just be petty, wouldn't it.) What does this mean? Does it mean that you should eschew verbs like smile and nod and shrug, perhaps, like my colleague once advised, in favour of verbs like grin (though even that becomes problematic, I'd wager) and jerk and ... and what? What's a good alternative for shrug? I don't know. So the question then becomes: if I struggle to find alternatives, what kind of wordsmith am I? Really truly? 

I have a sneaking suspicion, for example, that I use the word dark an awful lot in The Raptured. I've also made reference--cue cringing!--to my antagonist's dark, endless eyes, I am quite sure, definitely more than once. I also have trouble finding expressive speaking verbs. I don't tend to use fancy speaking verbs like interjected or exclaimed or postulated, because a) I worry that it makes me sound like a puffed-up douchebag; and b) I am always reminded, when it comes to dialogue tags, of the venerable Elmore Leonard's words on the subject: Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. Still--as ready as I am to cede this point to Mr. Leonard, sometimes I wonder.

Am I doing enough? Am I pushing the writing enough? I will be the first to say, here and now, that I'm not one of those lucky writers who deal so blithely in literary pyrotechnics. I'm not. My writing has always tended to be somewhat more straightforward--a little too earnest at times, for sure, but still straightforward nonetheless. My writing is also--and this seems to be increasingly the case as I get older--kind of spare. On my more fanciful/delusional days, I sometimes think that if Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O'Connor had a love child who was also a writer, that would be me.

Except that, uh, I have approximately .025 the talent of each. Meh. What are you going to do.

All of which is to say, I suppose, that this question of diction continues to dog me. I continue to wonder and worry and fret over whether my word choice is appropriate, whether I'm pushing my work in all of the ways that I can--at a macro as well as at a larger level. But I am comforted, as I noted above, that there are things like editors and copy-editors and entire editorial teams whose task (among many others--let us all take a moment and give thanks for the patience of the editorial juggernaut!) it is to help you sort through the sameness and find better ways of saying what needs to be said. 

I'm still really bad for smiling. And nodding. My characters do that an awful lot. I still find myself slicing those verbs out of manuscripts at every available opportunity. You'd think that I learned enough, all those years ago, to never use them in the first place, but dear reader: you would be wrong. What I haven't learned about writing could fill an entire university library. This is why I'm still waiting for the folks at ECW to show up at my door, clad in trenchcoats and big dark (har har) sunglasses and holding oversized jumbo red pens with which they then proceed to bludgeon me to death. "Sorry," they might say, by way of explanation, "but we thought that you actually knew what the hell you were doing. We've re-read the manuscript now, and it's excruciatingly clear that you'll never even bite the dust of Twilight. Bye-bye, charlatan!"

Anyway. All is not lost. To the contrary: ECW seems rather sure of my writerly abilities, my penchant for words like "dark" and "shrug" notwithstanding. And one can always continue learning, non? At least I know enough now to gut those verbs when I can. At least I know enough now to search, and to push the writing beyond what's safest, beyond that easy first option. At least I am aware (entirely, painfully aware) of the fact that the writing can always get better. 

There are, one could argue, far worse places to be! 


  1. I definitely relate to your worries about word choice. Along with red marks next to my characters' nods and smiles, writing school gave me a giant fear of gerunds and any form of the verb "to be."

    As for speaking verbs, I prefer "said" to anything else. It's what's inside the quotation marks that matters. As a reader, words like "exclaimed" and "interjected" tend to take me out of the story and draw too much attention to the writer trying to sound interesting. In longer exchanges of dialogue, I often feel that reference to the speaker isn't even needed beyond the first couple of lines.

    Also, for what it's worth, I think you definitely know what the hell you're doing.


  2. I second Pam's saying you know what you're doing.

    Otherwise, I say, stop worrying. You have talent to work with and it's not going to be all high school writing. Stop judging. Just write. Your job is to tell a good story. The editors can do the rest.