Archive for September, 2011

Me and the Rays

My grandmother loved baseball.  That’s not one of the things most people say when remembering their grandparents, but it was true.  She lived in St. Pete, Florida, so baseball meant minor league baseball.  Whenever we’d visit, we’d end up doing a game at old Al Lang Field, home (at the time) of the St. Pete Cardinals.  It’s a beautiful park right in the heart of St. Pete overlooking the Bay.  It’s on the site where the Rays were trying to get a new stadium built back in 2009.  I always had mixed feelings about that.  It would be an absolutely beautiful location for a park, but it would also mean tearing down the little stadium where I saw my first professional baseball game.

But this story isn’t about me.  Not yet, anyway.  It was about my grandmother.  She was a fan of major league baseball in St. Pete decades before the city even had a team.  As I grew up I can remember her sending us newspaper clippings whenever a team was using her city as a negotiation point to get a new stadium built.  It was part of that evolution.  First teams would threaten to go to St. Pete if they didn’t get a new stadium, then DC, and now Vegas.  It’s tough being that city, feeling like you’re on the verge of finally getting a team just to have it pulled away.  The team that came the closest, at least in my memory of the clippings, were the White Sox.  They were trying to get a replacement for Comiskey built and were threatening to uproot to the gulf coast of Florida if it didn’t happen.

It happened, and Chicago sent St. Pete a shipment of white Hanes socks to twist the knife.  St. Pete sent out the hazardous materials disposal team as a thumb back.

Finally, in the 1995 expansion, Tampa Bay struck gold and landed a new American League team that would balance against the new National League team headed for Phoenix.  First time we went to St. Pete after the award, there was already a countdown billboard up even though it was counting down years rather than days.  The city was trying so long for a team, it was damn excited one was coming.  My grandmother especially.

Baseball was more and more what we could talk about on the phone.  At the time I still considered myself an Orioles fan, having gotten into the sport while living in the Hampton Roads area, right in that big void between the Braves and Orioles.  We got both teams on television, as it was still the era of Home Team Sports and TBS Braves coverage.  I cheered for the Orioles because that’s where Cal Ripken Jr. played.  It wasn’t until he retired that I realized I’d never really been an Orioles fan, I’d been a Ripken fan.

Even before he retired, I was already leaning towards the Rays, largely for my grandmother.  It was something we could have in common.  Which was tough.  What was also tough was trying to cheer for two teams in the same division, who played each other so frequently.

After Ripken left, I started seeing the Orioles for who they were, or rather, for what Peter Angelos was.  We’d moved to DC by then, and Angelos was already starting his years long obsession with keeping baseball out of DC.  Maybe it went on longer, it’s hard to say, but I wasn’t aware of it really until we lived in the area and the rose-colored glasses of Ripken fandom were gone.  I really fell out of love with baseball in general, but as much as I did follow, I did so to track with my grandmother.

So I was a Devil Rays fan.

Sadly, she passed away before she saw the team become the Rays.  It wasn’t just a name change.  That first season after being the Devil Rays was also the season they went worst to first.  As the Devil Rays the team never had a winning season, as the Rays they’ve never had a losing season.  In the 2008 season they had the first pick in the MLB Draft and appeared in the World Series.  That’s a hell of a turnaround.

I’m not a Rays fan exclusively anymore.  Not since the Nats moved to DC.  But I’m a firm believer that one can have an AL and an NL team, and the Rays are still my AL team.  They’re actually the reason I cheer for the American League in the All Star Game, just because I figure the Rays are more likely to take advantage of home field in the World Series than the Nats anytime soon.

I’m sorry my grandmother never got to see the success the Rays have had.  I’m glad she doesn’t have to see their current threats to move the team away from downtown St. Pete and across the bay to Tampa, or even the overtures that Nashville is making to grab the team.

So once again the Rays are in the post season, third time in four years since the name change.  And the Nats, well, aren’t.  Maybe there will come some magical point in the future where I have to make some hard decisions watching a Rays/Nats World Series, but I doubt it’ll ever come to that.  Really, for anyone who does follow a team from each league, isn’t that the best possible problem to have?  Until that day, though, my postseason loyalties are clear.

Go Rays!

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A Writer Re-Reviews: Thor (and Captain America)

Yes, I know, I’ve already done a review of Thor.  However after viewing it again last night, I wanted to revisit my earlier review and look more into  the actual failing of the film by looking at another movie that succeeded.  There are a number of examples I could choose from, but let’s stay within the comic book genre, even within the Avengers lead-up films, and pick Captain America: The First Avenger.

What am I looking at in both films?  The traditional three-act structure of a movie.  And I want to specifically talk about how it’s typically used in the superhero origin story movie, which both of these movies are, and how both deviated from that structure.

In most super hero origin movies, the acts are as follows:

  • Act One: Establish the person behind the hero.
  • Act Break: Person gets super powers.
  • Act Two: Person learns how to use powers.  Villain origin story.
  • Act Break: Villain directly threatens hero.
  • Act Three: Hero works to defeat villain.

This certainly isn’t every superhero origin, but just to go back to the first Avengers movie to see how it’s done cookie cutter (but well).  In Iron Man, Act One focuses on the background of Tony Stark and his time in captivity, Act Two is after he emerges from the caves and works to improve his suit and life for down trodden middle easterners while Obadiah Stane gets his own suit put together, Act Three is the big showdown.  It’s a standard formula that both Thor and Captain America tweak.  In one it worked, in the other it didn’t.

So how did the three act structure fail Thor?  The big tweak to the structure is the flipping of the traditional first and second acts.  Act One focuses on Thor having all his powers in Asgard and Jotunheim.  Act Two focuses on him trying to be just a brawny dude on earth, learning to be a hero and not just someone with a bunch of awesome powers.  The problem here is that it means his entire character arc happens not over the course of the entire film but over the course of only the middle act.  This is where the film falls apart, by giving too little time to too important of a part of the story.  It also means that the Asgard section feels padded in order to get to the right time code for the break into Act Two.

So how did the three act structure get massaged to work better for Captain America?  Well, it’s right there in the Act Two bullet point.  Typically within a three act structure, Act Two introduces the secondary characters within a movie.  In the superhero origin movie, those secondary characters tend to include the villain of the piece.  Captain America instead presents the villain fully formed, from the beginning.  He’s given little bits of back story, but not an entire origin in the way of Green Goblin in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man.  By treating him as an established character, by having him exist before the Captain, it does several things at once.  First, it gives the character action in Act One, breaking up the typically slow alter ego introduction section of an origin movie.  Second, it gives the Captain some focus to his actions after getting his super powers, instead of having him just show off his powers in ways that ultimately won’t connect to the main plot.  Third, it frees up time in Act Two for more plot development, and for more of what we want to see out of a super hero movie: ass kicking.

Now.  I’m not going to sit here and try to pretend that Captain America is some awesome paradigm of film.  It’s not going to to be nominated for Adapted Screenplay.  All I’m saying is that we have two Marvel movies that played with the traditional presentation of three acts within the super hero origin story.  And that’s great.  With the sheer number of super heroes being optioned into films, something needs to be done to keep the films from looking and feeling like the same script adapted for a different power set.  But with experimentation comes successes and failures, and that’s what came out of the 2011 Marvel releases.

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A Writer Reviews: Insidious

I don’t typically go in for the haunted house possession movies, just not really my thing.  But this weekend I ended up watching Insidious as part of an I-pick, she-picks double feature with my wife.  (My pick: The Illusionist, the animated one not the Edward Norton one, brilliant but depressing.)

Through the first act of the movie I actually quite liked it.  Mostly because it obeyed one of my big musts for a horror movie: it trusted itself to be scary.  It didn’t resort to the cheep scares, the visceral equivalent of fart jokes in a comedy, but kept things going mostly through tone and dread, which is where horror actually lives.  Yes, it’s my old go to distinction between scares and horror that I know I’ve touched on before.

But in its strength early on also lies its weakness as the story progresses.  And it’s something that writers need to be aware of in all their works, but especially in works of horror: tone.  Horror is one of only two genres (the other being comedy) that I would probably define by its tone rather than its content.  It’s also why those two genres tend to cross all other genres, and even each other at times.  It’s how Alien can be a horror movie set on a space ship, or Galaxy Quest can be a comedy set on a space ship.  The space ships make the movies science fiction because of content, but the chosen tone makes them horror or comedy.

It’s also worth bringing up my other big horror cliche, that it and comedy are really two sides of the same coin.  Both are about crossing lines, it’s just a question of which lines are crossed.  Gene Weingarten has a fantastic theory that humor is the natural human defense mechanism against the existential terror of the world around us.  Babies laughing during a game of peak-a-boo are laughing in relief after the horror of watching their parent disappear right in front of them.  It’s a terror-then-release thing, and one of the reasons that humans seek out frightening experiences for the rushes of first the fear and then the release.

Getting back to Insidious, tone awareness ends up being the problem with the movie.

Dark comedy is fantastic, and there is plenty of room for the humorous within a horror story.  But that needs to be set in the tone early on, and not be something that emerges as the movie continues.  If lighter tone doesn’t show up until Act Two of a story, it’s not dark comedy, it’s a failure of tone.  And that happened in Insidious when the two spirit detectives showed up and started using a View Master to track down spirits hiding in the house.  It was a moment that took both my wife and I out of the flow of the movie and start asking just what the intended tone was.  When eventually the main spirit guide shows up, she puts on a gas mask that, while used to very creepy effect in Doctor Who, just didn’t work in the movie.

The tone problem continued into the real dramatic high of the movie, when the father astral projects into the spirit realm and encounters all the evil souls looking for an empty body to possess.  Perhaps one of the problems is that concept works better on paper than it does on film, because unfortunately for each spirit that was introduced there was something unquestionably silly about them.  The murderess who looked like a 50s mannequin.  The demon with translucent skin just a little too eager to lick peoples’ faces.  The big bad demon of the whole thing, the flame-faced demon who just had greasepaint on his face rather than, as I expected, something more akin to Nicolas Cage in Ghost Rider.  The old lady that looked like an 18-year old in a Halloween old lady costume.  These probably weren’t entirely in the script, they were in the art department, the make-up, the directing, but they were real issues with the tone.  And it’s why I wonder if the story would translate better on paper, as there’s little chance that a reader who comes across a phrase like “the demon’s face was a veil of fire” would imagine a creature like a poorly made-up clown or Darth Maul wannabe.

For the movie it made for a disappointing last 50 minutes after a strong opening 30.  For a writer looking for a lesson, it’s this: beware of your tone in horror.  If you want campy, do campy, but do it from the beginning.  Don’t let it show up too late in the story, or else you’ve set the table for readers just to pull out the tablecloth from under them.

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When You Love What You’re Doing

Isn’t that how the saying starts?  When you love what you’re doing, you can’t call it work.  It goes something like that.  So along those lines, I was thrilled when the University of Chicago came out with the list of the 10 jobs that resulted in the highest levels of job satisfaction.  I enjoy job satisfaction.  Who doesn’t?  So let’s look at the list.

1) Clergy.  While I wouldn’t have guessed this, I also can’t say I’m entirely surprised.  For those who believe, truly believe, what would be more satisfying than spreading God’s word to the world?  Of course, the big problem there is that I’m not particularly religious, so a life in the clergy just isn’t something I’m suited for.  Next.

2) Firefighters.  Apparently 80% of firefighters report positively when asked about their job satisfaction.  These are people who put no thought into their own safety who have made a career out of saving others.  That’s got to be a hell of a feeling, knowing people are alive thanks to your actions.  Sadly, I lack both the physical conditioning and the heroic altruism necessary for the work.  I really respect those who do, but it’s not me.  Next.

3) Physical Therapists.  There’s a theme thus far.  Saving people.  Religiously saving people, physically saving people, and now physical therapists who help people who have experienced a trauma get their lives back to normal.  It’s fantastically important work, and while I’m sure there are frustrations in every bit of therapy, there are so many rewards.  It also requires years of study, and the kind of people skills that I just have never quite managed.  Next.

4) Author.


I guess we have a winner.

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Estate Sale Stories

Today my wife and I decided to take the day off and just…have a day off.  It’s fantastic.  And because we’re us, we decided we were going to hit some estate sales, see all the best stuff that’s already been bought by antique dealers when we typically show up to sales on Saturday and Sunday.  In the end three sales netted us one book (a world history written by HG Wells) and two stories.

House one.

My wife is calling this the “creepy house”.  It was a good half hour drive, but we were drawn there by the idea of an estate on a 40 acre plot of land, especially with several pictures on the estate sale website showing bookshelves bowing under the weight of their loads.  It was clear when we drove up that the house, nestled in among the battlefields of Manassas, was old.  I don’t know exactly when the house was built, there was no one there conducting tours of the place, but it easily dated to the 1800s.  I doubt it was there when the Civil War was being fought, but I don’t think it came much later.

The house was originally u-shaped, but the old patio was filled in decades ago.  Not well.  All the walls still felt like exterior walls, even still had exterior windows in them.  My wife, as I’ve been writing this, has been trying to find the house of Zillow, which claims a construction date of 1942.  Bullshit, says I.  My bet is that’s the date of the fill-in.

But this isn’t about real estate, this is about stories.  I wasn’t really looking for the story in this house, but my wife couldn’t stop talking about it after we left.  She was struck by the peeling wall paper.  By the questionable quality of the addition.  Just by the fact that the house was located at the back of a massive field, down about a half mile of gravel driveway.  I also didn’t see the unicorns filling the house.  Not until they were pointed out to me.  Then, yes, there were unicorns everywhere.  I don’t think there was a room without them.  The master bedroom included a little make-up alcove.

What really spoke to my wife were the two children’s rooms.  The rooms clearly decorated for young girls.  The rooms where the estate sale runners decided to display the medical equipment.  Probably equipment used by the owners of the house, the same owners who needed the chair lift on the stairs.  Who lived at the end of this half mile driveway off an out of the way road miles from the closest…anything.  And yet were subsisting, even though some horribly brutal weather the last two winters.  In a house that felt untouched for the past sixty years, save that chair lift.

This was the story my wife walked away from the day with.  I just walked away with a book that was someone’s Christmas present 75 years ago.  That in itself felt a little weird

House two.

This was the story that fascinated me.  It was located in the heart of Vienna, one of the swankier parts of Northern Virginia.  And the house certainly fit.  It was a recently built three story mansion.  All the stair cases were sixteen stairs long to allow for massive ceilings, even in the basement.  There were the wet bars.  Plural.  One in the kitchen, one in an entertaining room off the kitchen, and a third in the basement pool room.

This was my dream house.

Everything about the house smelled new, the scent of cutting carpet and drywall dust.

And yet, there was an estate sale going on.  I know there’s any number of reasons to have an estate sale.  Downsizing, moving, a divorce, it doesn’t mean that someone has necessarily died.  And in this house, the modern day mansion with the huge room of Christmas decorations and an interior where nothing looked older than 20 years, I hope that the purpose of the sale had nothing to do with tragedy.  But my brain couldn’t help churning through what might have happened in this house.  What might lead such new construction with clearly young occupants (my guess based on the weight room in the basement) to end up going to estate sale?

I don’t have an answer.  Or, at least, I don’t have an answer yet.  But there’s certainly a story that could be set in this shocking new house at the end of the swanky driveway.

The lesson in the end of this?  Get out.  Look around.  Estate sales can be one place to get a story idea, or at least a setting for a story.  Both of these houses will likely work their way into our stories.  What we get out of each were story details that may not have occurred to us on our own.  Settings that we wouldn’t have thought existed.  All it cost us was a few hours in the morning, and $3 for that book.

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The Non-Rules of Flashathon

First, the one thing everyone probably noticed: there are now official graphics for Flashathon!  I’d like to thank my absolutely awesome wife for putting them together.  We’ll have more graphics going forward, including official winner badges for each level of participation.

Today marks the one month point until Flashathon, which means the information will come faster and faster.  This is feeling more and more real by the day, and with that it feels crazier and crazier.  I wanted to mark this one month point by presenting my philosophy for Flashathon and follow up with a series of what I’m calling the non-rules of the event.

The Philosophy of Flashathon

The purpose of this event is the raw spark of creativity.  Inspiring that spark, cultivating it, and then letting it explode forth.  That’s why the event has as few rules as possible, and why I wanted to present the rest of this post in the form of non-rules.

The Format of Flashathon

Each hour I will start a new post in the blog.  It will include a few words of inspiration and a cue for that hour.  At that point the participants get to work, putting what time they can and want into creating during that hour.

The Non-Rules of Flashathon

  1. You do not have to post your story.  This event will be powered largely by the honor system.  All I ask each hour is that you post that you did participate.  What kind of story you wrote, perhaps a word count, perhaps what amount of time you were able to work on it.  Really, it’s just a way of checking in on people and knowing who earned what level of participation.
  2. You do not have to use the hourly prompt.  The prompts will be there for those who want them, intending to provide an inspirational spark for those who might be flagging for inspiration.
  3. You do not have to write flash fiction.  That’s what the event is built around, but if you get to the end of the hour and realize you’re only halfway through the story, keep going with it into the next hour.  I’ll still count it.  Or if you want use the event to do 15 or 30 minute writing sprints during the hours you participate, do that!  I’d be tempted to create a word goal minimum for an hour of participation, but that sounds suspiciously like a rule.
  4. You do not have to participate all twelve hours.  Look, I know it’s a Saturday.  I’m intending this entirely as a drop-in, drop-out affair.  We will celebrate what hours people do get to participate in, rather than look at what hours they don’t.

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Better Living Through Cliches

Because occasionally we can all use a little advice in our lives, and what better place to turn than cliches?  Today we look at the all too common situation where some seriously messed up shit is going on, but you just don’t know what.

In this situation, there’s a clear order of who to ask.  First, look for any children available, the younger the better.  This can include teenagers, but only if everyone else available is at least 30.  Ideally, you want someone roughly half the age of the second youngest person.  If no one falls under this age suggestion, move on.

So people are still dying off one by one and there’s no children available.  That’s when it’s time to turn to the person wearing glasses.  No matter how insane their suggestions sound, they are likely correct.  Trust them more and more as they can cite specific examples similar to what’s happening.

Do not trust this man.

But what if you don’t have any children or clear nerds available?  That’s where you look for the oldest African American gentleman you can find.  Don’t immediately ask them advice, though.  First determine whether or not he is Tony Todd.  If so, he’s likely the personification of death and should be avoided.  Otherwise, ask away and trust everything they say.  Afterall, horror movies have shown us how unlikely it is for any African American man to make it past the age of 30, clearly any who have reached an advanced age must know anything there is to know.

If none of these people are available…

…well, you’re probably screwed.

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Dialect in Dialogue

Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  Which means the internet is full of “avast”s and “arr”s and “yoho”s and, I dunno, perhaps a “parlay” or two.  It’s largely an exercise in silliness, and while I don’t much see the point, I’m not going to tell people not to do it.  But it does dredge up a topic that drives me completely crazy as a reader.

Dialect used in dialogue.

I can only really approach this subject from the point of view of a reader.  It’s something I’ve never really tried to approach as a writer, at least not in any full fledged manner.  Yes, I’ve given characters distinctive voices, speech patterns, but never gone so far as to attempt to respell words based on the accent a character has had.  Why?  Because (a) I’ve seen it done badly more times than well, (b) I hate when I see it done badly, and (c) I have no expectation that it’s something I would do well.

Best example I can come up with for bad dialect?  I almost hate to do it, because I hate to pick on Lovecraft’s writing, but it’s old Zadok Allen from The Shadow Over Innsmouth.  I’m only going to present the first two paragraphs for reasons that should be obvious to any who know the story, and will be detailed in a moment for those who don’t.

      “Thar’s whar it all begun – that cursed place of all wickedness whar the deep water starts. Gate o’ hell – sheer drop daown to a bottom no saoundin’-line kin tech. Ol’ Cap’n Obed done it – him that faound aout more’n was good fer him in the Saouth Sea islands.

“Everybody was in a bad way them days. Trade fallin’ off, mills losin’ business – even the new ones – an’ the best of our menfolks kilt aprivateerin’ in the War of 1812 or lost with the Elizy brig an’ the Ranger scow – both on ’em Gilman venters. Obed Marsh he had three ships afloat – brigantine Columby, brig Hefty, an’ barque Sumatry Queen. He was the only one as kep’ on with the East-Injy an’ Pacific trade, though Esdras Martin’s barkentine Malay Bride made a venter as late as twenty-eight.

The occasional dropped ‘g’ I can put up with, but there is a level of attempted dialect through Zadok’s monologue that pulled me completely out of reading the story.  Which is a shame, as there’s a lot of necessary back story hiding among the “saoundin”s and the “Injy”s.  Doesn’t really help that he gets a 2,154 word monologue broken up by a short 32-word paragraph as he lowers his voice to a whisper.  And that’s before his second monologue of 2,227 words, giving a total of  nearly 4,500 words of heavy dialect crammed into an overall section of just under 5,000 words.  Obviously there’s deeper issues to the Zadok passage than just the dialect, but it does serve as a rather dense block of dialect for the reader to work their way through.

This is not me trying to come out and say dialect should always be avoided.  Largely because I hate to ever make edicts like that about any facet of writing.  I have seen dialect done fantastically well.  As a Wake Forest grad I’m required on my diploma to use Maya Angelou as an example of dialect done well, perhaps a master class on the subject.  It’s used to give each character distinctive but still readable voices, rather than throwing up walls of text that leave a reader pondering the intended pronunciation.

So, this is me speaking as a reader, consider what you’re doing.  Consider if you’re doing it well.  Have someone else read it and make sure the dialect is understandable to someone other than the author.  You should be doing this with every element of your writing, but perhaps nowhere is it more important than when dialect comes into play.  Because we as readers need to know what characters are saying, that’s the entire point of dialogue.  So we as writers need to ensure that they can be understood.  This gets exponentially important if the character needs to have any long stretches of dialogue, or is even the first person narrator of the story.


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How Many Novels Am I Writing?

Ah, Capsule.

Anyone in my writers group knows my long struggles with this novel.  They’ve seen me start it, stop it, restart it, walk away from it, return to it, circle it, and just generally futz with it for about three years now.  And still, it’s only a shell of the story that I had in my mind when I started writing it.  Bits and pieces of it have made their way into short stories, some intended to be related, some entirely unrelated.  It’s led me to make a series of blog posts about where technology is going, and read the Popol Vul.  It frustrates me, and excites me, and leaves me absolutely bewildered.

It has largely taken a back seat to my burgeoning career as a short story writer.  And that may have been for the best in the long run, though I’m now going to avoid rehashing my Unleaded post this week about the dangers of getting into a novelist-only mindset.

However writing that post has got me pondering just what the hell is up with Capsule.  And after picking some pieces apart I’m starting to wonder if the whole problem is that it’s two novels that I’m trying to write simultaneously.  If it has too much story, if I’m trying to do too many things.

On the one hand it’s a novel about someone trying to solve a crime in the 2070s committed by people living off the grid in a society that has forgotten that they’re on the grid.  On the other hand it’s a novel where a father is trying to save his daughter from an apocalypse cult that is disappointed that the world didn’t end in 2012 like they were promised.  Those are both stories that I’m enjoying, and that I think could be novels.  But more and more I don’t think they’re the same novel.

Just writing that sentence feels good.  I don’t think they’re the same novel.

Where it all started to fall apart for me is when I tried to make the one novel turn into the other novel, when I shifted from a murder investigation to a kidnapping plot.  Where just because both stories relied on a fanatic underground element that they had to be the same fanatic underground element.

My wife, ever wise, suggested that maybe I should put it all into Scrivener, that picking apart the pieces, summarizing the scenes, figuring out where the plot pieces are, that maybe it’ll help rebirth Capsule and get it to work in its current form.  I’m going to do that, in a large part because it will also help me dissect the two stories from each other, attempt to pull apart these conjoined twins without killing one or the other.  If that surgery is needed, it won’t be easy, but who ever said writing a novel was?

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Crutch words

It started with “suddenly.”

I was a kid at the time, either in late elementary or early middle school.  My parents got me a computer program that let me make little picture book stories on the computer, using provided sprites and a text box roughly the length of a tweet.  And so I wrote stories where all sorts of things would suddenly happen.  People and aliens would suddenly appear.  Cars would suddenly drive.  I remember clearly one time even a seed suddenly sprouted.  Which, in reality, only happens in nature documentaries employing stop motion.

It was my first understanding of crutch words.  My parents, being supportive, listened to the stories, and pointed out that I was using “suddenly” far too often, and in frequently inappropriate places.  I, being a new writer, pushed back.  Surely there’s a point in time where something wasn’t happening then the next moment it is.  Even that plant.  There must be an instant where it hadn’t broken through the soil then BAM, seedling.  There I was, a happy little punctuationalist, happily dividing the world into discrete instances of time and insisting that there be hard lines between events.

By the time I did Nanowrimo for the first time, it was “a bit.”

Everywhere characters went, they would come across a bit of this, and a bit of that.  Things that weren’t happening now were happening a bit later.  It’s an odd evolution from suddenly, when put that way.  Anything that wasn’t quite something were always a bit of something.  I think I did an editing pass on the novel intended just on killing that phrase and came away with, on average, just over one instance per printed page.  Which is entirely too many.

Crutch words.  We lean on them, we use them, we over use them.  We don’t really think about them.  And therein lies the entire problem.  They’re the words that we go to to fill in a phrase that needs just a little something else.  I see them in works that I’m beta reading, I see them in anthologies, they exist all around us.  I’ve read published short stories that I put down because the word “had” drove me to the point of distraction, actually taking me completely out of the story.  And that’s at least often a grammatically arguable word in situations.  “Suddenly”?  “A bit”?  Wow.

That I’m talking about crutch words doesn’t mean I know a fix.  Instead I find that they’re evolving.  Situational.  Just as I get rid of one, another comes up.  Sometimes for a few months, sometimes just for one short story.  For a period, everyone was finding themselves doing things.  Everyone was starting to do things.  Everything was actual.  In the end, I don’t know how to enact a complete fix.  I’m not even sure there is a complete fix, a way to never have a crutch word ever again.  But there are a few tools that have helped me track down their latest incarnations:

  • Beta readers.  Not enough can be said about having someone else sit down and read the story.  They find the sentences that work in your head that don’t work on paper.  The motivations that aren’t quite right.  And, if they’re good, they find your words for you.  Sometimes with a ruthlessness that can border on mania.  But one of the early lessons that comes with any kind of writing submission is to grow that thick skin.
  • Word frequency analyzers.  I love that Scrivener for Windows (and I assume the original) has this built in.  Not just built in, but it’s automatic anytime the total word count is generated.  There are things that are allowable near the top of the list.  Direct and indirect objects.  Pronouns.  Character names.  “Said.”  Conjunctions.  But look for words that are out of place.  Some of the really good ones will even pull out phrases that are used multiple times.
  • Awareness.  This can come from the other two, but just learning what your crutch words are will get rid of them.  At first it’ll come from knowing what to look for when editing, but eventually it’ll evolve into just striking those words from your internal narration while writing the story.  And Awareness is a very specific word choice here.  I’ve seen awareness ribbons for any number of things, and crutch words would probably benefit, so if that’s the way to keep them close to mind, make some.  Put them in your writing space.  And remember.

Together, we can end word crutching.  Or at least find a new word to lean on.  I’m going to try “squamous” for awhile.  Do you have crutch words?  Maybe we should set up an exchange.  Or a bonfire for them.

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