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Skip the fancy words

tcr! · Sep 19, 2017 at 9:39 am

Don’t Write What You Know

EVERY WEDNESDAY, I teach an introductory fiction workshop at Harvard University, and on the first day of class I pass out a bullet-pointed list of things the students should try hard to avoid. Don’t start a story with an alarm clock going off. Don’t end a story with the whole shebang having been a suicide note. Don’t use flashy dialogue tags like intoned or queried or, God forbid, ejaculated.

I didn’t read most of this article (it’s 25+ pages printed) and I never write fiction but the first paragraph I’m all in. For any kind of writing. I think flashy dialogue tags are what prompted me to say:

I don’t really like poetry. I like it even less when they read it.

I’ve gotten to the point where I never sit down to a blank piece of paper either. Never for a long piece anyway. All my long form stuff is dictated and then it just flows from the whole stream of consciousness thing. After I’ve gotten the gist of it out I’ll go back and fix (try to) the spelling and grammar. Maybe expound on half thoughts or whatever.

That’s also why there are so many fragments in my writing. I don’t talk in complete sentences.

One of the best things I ever read was, “write like you talk.”

I’m not 100% behind that but it’s rare that I consult the thesaurus these days.

#literature #protip

keamoose keamoose · Sep 19, 2017 at 10:24 am

“Flashy dialogue tags” - never heard it called that, but I like it. Reminds me of the HTML blink tag, or the marching ants tag. Annoying and distracting to the reader.

tcr! tcr! · Sep 19, 2017 at 10:56 am

Totally distracting… “They’re like written speed bumps,” I intoned.

Intoned to the breeze opposite the pane while aimlessly thumb flipping through the bigger pictures. Because there are, thou, more than one. Endless pictures during an infinite time. On a seashell shore.

And then the milkmaids with their knotty braids and their cows milk. Dropping drips. And then the chewing cow chewed, chewed mildly like an unamused asshole. That he was. Lovely brilliant.

To conclude: “Oh, that was awesome! I loved when you were talking about that thing on the seashore and then the shells, too.”

keamoose keamoose · Sep 19, 2017 at 11:23 am

The cow turned her languid eyes seaward and mooed, a long, languorous moo full of longing for the past and memories of the treacle-coloured dog that frolicked in the daisy pasture. Her eyelashes sparkled sadly in the morning’s cool, vapid mist as she lifted a mud-crusted cloven hoof to kick listlessly at the hand-carved milking stool, and she thought again of the dog, the dog with the silken tail and gentle woof. “Moo,” she susurrated in her torpor, and yet another near-silent “moo” escaped her grass-stained lips.

keamoose keamoose · Sep 19, 2017 at 11:30 am

I have to say, I’m a little giddy that I managed to work “susurrated” in there, especially given that the only dialogue is “moo”.

tcr! tcr! · Sep 19, 2017 at 12:54 pm

“Susurrated” is a good word. I even had to look up the definition. I will also admit to reading it at first as “serrated.”

I was worried Cow had lethargically steak-knifed herself.

keamoose keamoose · Sep 19, 2017 at 1:10 pm

One of the keys to bad writing is to use a lot of words that you don’t quite understand.

I am also concerned about Cow. She seems a little down and steak-knifing seems like a real possibility. The next 17 chapters go into the backstory of the milking stool, so we won’t find out more about Cow for a while. I haven’t decided what happened to the treacle-coloured dog from the daisy pasture. It’s possibly a reference to a traumatic event in Cow’s calfhood.

I kinda want to write this book. Is that bad?

“Moo,” she pleaded, her dappled hide gleaming in the lights of the late-night shop windows like the neon map of a fictional country whose people have never been to the seashell shore. The milkmaid frowned into her coffee, knotty braids a-twitch with concern. “Moo?” queried the milkmaid. “Moo? How can you possibly intone the word moo when my heart is torn asunder with memories of the treacle-coloured dog?” she kvetched vexingly.


tcr! tcr! · Sep 19, 2017 at 2:36 pm

DONT STOP. Write yarn book. That’s the obvious solution. There’s a market there, I intone it.

keamoose keamoose · Sep 19, 2017 at 2:48 pm

Have you ever heard of Adrian Mole? There’s a book in the series where he is writing a novel called “Lo! The Flat Hills of my Homeland” that is an amazing example of truly terrible writing. The main character in Adrian’s novel ends up writing a prehistoric novel in which a caveman writes a novel despite not having the concept of language. A publisher ends up being interested in publishing THAT novel. I think that’s where we’re headed here with Cow.

keamoose keamoose · Sep 19, 2017 at 2:59 pm

Possible titles: “The Milking Years”, “How Daisied Was My Pasture”, “Treacle Dog Summers”, “My Dappled Hide”, “Moo”.

I kinda like the last one. “Moo”. A New York Times Bestseller. Oprah’s Book Club Selection. Now A Major Motion Picture. Starring Judi Dench as (the voice of) Cow, who still only says ‘moo’ in a variety of tones.

tcr! tcr! · Sep 20, 2017 at 8:59 am

I really think you should get going with making this a real book. It would bepuzzle the kids and their parents alike.

I would, however, shy away from using the word “Moo” in the title. When Maggie was younger she had a few Miss Moo books and I wouldn’t want the copyright police to dispatch unto thou cease and desists.

I shallwould procure the second copy. Or pre-order on Amazon.

Also said I, I was thinking in addition to over-utilizing a thesaurus it might be fun to invent words, too. See “bepuzzle” and “shallwould” above.

jimi hindrance experience jimi hindrance experience · Sep 20, 2017 at 9:48 am

Methinks bepuzzle is j’fuzzle!

keamoose keamoose · Sep 20, 2017 at 10:06 am

Well, ok. I think I’ll go with “The Milking Years” as a working title.

“Bepuzzle” is actually a real word, because English is like that.

“Moo,” mused Cow, in that inner part of her brain reserved for the most personal thoughts. Her muzzle sparkled in the sun as she nosed the spider glistening its way along the old, splintered fencerail. The spider eyed her, bepuzzled, as self-doubt overwhelmed him and he began once again to ponder whether the cow in his field truly understood that the early modern English word ‘attercop’, which survived in the Yorkshire dialect but was otherwise generally supplanted by the newer ‘spider’, was cognate to the modern Danish ‘edderkop’ - ‘edderkopp’ in Norwegian - or if the simple bovine could even aspire to pronounce the so-called Danish ‘soft D’ the word required. “Shallwould,” he sighed. “Shallwould.”

keamoose keamoose · Sep 20, 2017 at 10:29 am

I also want to support your use of ‘thou’. I think we should bring it back. It was useful.

tcr! tcr! · Sep 20, 2017 at 3:35 pm

Thou cannot query “bepuzzle” with results included… 😢

Bepuzzled not found

tcr! tcr! · Sep 20, 2017 at 3:40 pm

Also… I’m tailing the moos Cow expatiated within detached documentation.

keamoose keamoose · Sep 20, 2017 at 3:51 pm

Merriam-Webster was fine with it:
I guess M-W is a bit of a hippie dictionary, but I don’t have the Unabridged OED on hand for a definitive answer.

I’m glad the moos are being tracked; the number of moos in the final version should have some significance so people can be forced to discuss it in English class. Although right now I’m kind of intrigued by the spider character; he’s angsty and into comparative linguistics. Plus there’s all the symbolism: the cow and the spider can’t communicate, neither realizes that the other is also an intelligent being, there’s the question of “is it a spider in a cow field, or a cow in a spider field?” It’s a whole allegorical thing - Animal Farm meets Charlotte’s Web meets Roget’s Thesaurus.

tcr! tcr! · Sep 21, 2017 at 11:56 am

Ah… after doing a little research I see that macOS uses the New Oxford American Dictionary. Bepuzzle has bepuzzled NOAD:

> Animal Farm meets Charlotte’s Web meets Roget’s Thesaurus.


keamoose keamoose · Sep 21, 2017 at 7:26 pm

Hmmm. Maybe “bepuzzle” is British English and not American? Although Merriam-Webster is definitely an American dictionary. Noah Webster was a big fan of spelling reform, and he was the guy who took the u out of words like colour and labour. I think I can do a whole chapter of the spider’s inner monologue on Noah Webster.

That line about the thesaurus needs to be a quote on the back cover of the book. 😉

tcr! tcr! · Sep 22, 2017 at 8:38 am

“spelling reform” — love it. First up shallwould be the cuucumber.

And the front cover should sport the thesaurus line. It’s THAT good. 💪


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jimi hindrance experience jimi hindrance experience · Sep 20, 2017 at 1:43 am



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