Monday, October 7, 2013

DIY Boot Camp

By Pamela

I missed out this summer--didn't apply for any writers' workshops or attend any conferences. Backed out of an online class on voice I initially signed up to take. I didn't add any new words to my novel at all. I kept up with freelance commitments and spent time with my kids, vacationed with my family. But today I feel a little slighted. As though every writer I know did something to further their craft. Everyone but me.

Instead of wallowing--OK, instead of continuing to wallow--I've decided to self-educate, self-motivate and self-initiate some changes to my writing.

I stared with buying Dani Shapiro's fabulous book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. If I were the type to underline in my books (and I just can't--I barely did in college and only because we had to), I would certainly underline, on page 17:
"Every book, story, and essay begins with a single word. Then a sentence. Then a paragraph. These words, sentences, paragraphs may well end up not being the actual beginning. You can't know that now. Straining to know the whole of the story before you set out is a bit like imagining great-grandchildren on the first date. But you can start with the smallest detail."
If you haven't bought Still Writing, I urge you to do so. You'll feel a kindred spirit with Ms. Shapiro as you realize even successful published authors still hear that niggling voice that threatens to derail a new story.

Also, this weekend, I printed out Chuck Palahniuk's "Nuts and Bolts: 'Thought' Verbs" article. He advises writers to eliminate 'thought' verbs from our writings: thinks, knows, understands, realizes, believes, wants, remembers, imagines, desires, etc. It's basically a way to 'show--don't tell' that helps you detect those verbs that prohibit you from really telling the story. He advises:
"Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing."
In my manuscript, I performed a search for the word "think" and fell over when the result was "too many to list." Granted, quite a few were rooted in dialog but still ... my work this week will be combing through my manuscript for these 'telling' verbs. Here's one I just reworked:
“Why?” I ask and she doesn’t answer me and I think about just getting out of the car and leaving her here by herself.
"Why?" I reach for the handle and lean my shoulder against the door, ready to get out of her car, leave her before she tells me what I don't want to hear. 
Maybe not a significant improvement but now we see my character making a move and not just thinking about it.

I also read through Mr. Palahniuk's "8 Words You Should Avoid When Writing" and found even more work that needs to be done on my manuscript. And Elmore Leonard's "10 Rules of Writing" is always good to review.

Going through my manuscript with these suggestions might feel daunting today, but I'm convinced that not only will my story be better as a result, but the new words I put on the page will be stronger, more vivid and inviting to read as I avoid weak verbs. Old habits might be hard to break but break they must. Otherwise my words will land flat. As Ms. Shapiro writes (on page 28), "Finding the language. It is what we can hope for."


  1. Good for you, Pamela. And thanks for the Dani Shapiro recommendation.

    I have never underlined in books, either. I like to keep them pristine.

    1. You're welcome, Cindy. I hope you like Dani's book. I have a feeling you will.


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