Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 6): Words

Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 6): Words

Lately, I’ve been stuck in words. The right word, as a matter of fact.

As some of you know, I’m studying Spanish, rather intensely, truth be told. I’m slowly moving away from being functionally illiterate in Spanish (where I know every word except the important one) and moving toward marginally literate in Spanish.

But you should hear me talk. Or maybe you shouldn’t. It’s somewhat embarrassing. I go along great guns and then I forget—if I ever knew—some word. In class one day, the word I forgot was the word for sixteen. Which I have known since I was sixteen, if not since I was eight. That word just left my head.

Of late, I’ve made it a point not to ask anyone in Spanish, “How do you say sixteen?” with the word sixteen in English.  A lot of my fellow students do that, and someone usually provides the word. That doesn’t help.

Instead, I cast about trying to figure out what the word is. In that case, I flap like a fish and oh and um and get even more embarrassed and frustrated. Many other times, I go around. I couldn’t do that with the word sixteen, since it’s made up of both ten and six (diez y seis a.k.a dieciséis), so I couldn’t default to that.

Most of the time, I can default. I can describe what I’m trying to say or point to it or, as in the case with “desk” (which I routinely forget), I can slap it with the palm of my hand.

There are a million ways to make yourself understood, many of them imperfect, but they work. Work how? They communicate, which is the entire point.

I live in a multilingual community, and the other day, I heard someone whose first language is Spanish talk to an English speaker. The Spanish speaker used a cognate of an English word to describe something. Logical, and actually probably quite accurate. But the word made that Spanish speaker sound old-fashioned and formal. It’s a word we rarely use anymore.

I’m sure I sound like that at times. I’m sure I also sound like a five-year-old: “Give me that…tiny…small…really little…pen? Pencil? That! Give me that!”

It’s amusing most of the time, to me and my listener, and the real key is that the conversation continues because we both find the words and make ourselves understood. We are talking and often telling stories, and that’s what counts.

When you’re in the words, though, the words become important. Learning languages teaches me that on a weird level. The goal, when you speak another language, is for the language to flow. I don’t want to talk rapidly and then stop and fumble for the right word…or any word.

If I make too many mistakes in a conversation, I suddenly become tongue-tied because I’m afraid of making more mistakes.

I’m trapped in the words and I lose track of my thoughts as well as the thread of the conversation. That’s when the other speaker jumps in and tries to supply a word, not to make me more comfortable or even to make me feel stupid, but to recapture the flow.

We want to lose ourselves in the conversation. We don’t want to think about each word. Imagine how difficult it would be to discuss anything if everyone was pausing and searching for the perfect word.

It simply doesn’t work.

Yet so many writers write that way. I have known many writers over the years who were so happy to get a paragraph done in their daily writing session. I know one writer, badly broken in his years in Hollywood, who spent eight hours getting that one paragraph, which he would then erase the following morning and start again.

It took him months to finish a short story, and he wondered why everyone thought his writing had declined.

His writing hadn’t. His storytelling skills had.

He spent so much time searching for the perfect word, the perfect phrase, that he wasn’t getting lost in the story.

When stories flow, we writers tell those stories to ourselves. Most of us actually have stepped into the world of the story. We can hear the dialogue, see the people (characters) talking, feel what the protagonist feels, and feel the events unfold around us.

Most writers lose track of where they are, which is why writing in a safe space is important. When I’m in the flow, someone could tell me that they’re going to give me a million dollars and I wouldn’t hear a word. I know Dean is that way too.

Writing is, in many ways, akin to the act of reading. After a certain point, it’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s a full-body escape. You might be sitting on the couch, reading your favorite author’s latest, but in your mind, you’re climbing an ice flow or running from a vampire or kissing the sexiest person in the room.

We all know what that kind of reading feels like. The act of writing—really, the act of storytelling—does the exact same thing.

Too many writers worry about the words. They worry that they have the wrong word or that they stated something “incorrectly.” It took me years to realize that only I knew if something was or was not incorrect. It was my story after all. No one else knew what was going to happen next, and no one else knew what I was trying to communicate.

I found that realization quite freeing. I could stop worrying about words and their cousin, grammar, and start focusing on the story.

When you tell a story, you break the rules of grammar. You might….

Or you might—

Or you might…?

All three of those things are different. The first trails off. The second is breathless. The third is uncertain.

Your subconscious knows the right word for the story. Just like it knows the right word for the conversation in a language in which you’re fluent, particularly in a language that you have known from birth.

You just have to trust it.

Writers who write words may have one successful book or story. That book is usually clever. It plays with words. It teases with concepts.

It has no heart. The characters don’t live. There really isn’t a story.

But it might be fun to read, particularly for people who love word-play.

A steady diet of that, though, is terrible.

Whereas a writer who tells a great story will always tell a great story. Readers will binge great stories, just like TV viewers binge TV shows that tell a great story.

Human beings crave story. They really don’t care about the right word. They’ll forgive the wrong word or strange grammar if the story holds them.

For example, the English translation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was not done by a native English speaker. Or it was done by someone who was a bit too literal with the idioms. Every now and then, they’d pop me out of the story as I tried to figure out what, exactly, a literal translation of a Swedish slang phrase really meant.

That didn’t stop me from reading the books or from enjoying the story. It never does. Readers will forgive a lot, especially if they’re deep in a story.

If a reader is complaining about the words, then something is holding the reader outside of the story. Often, it’s the beauty and perfection of the words themselves.

Writers who pay attention to the words are writing out of their critical voice. That’s the intellect, the parent, the one in charge of the rules.

Writers should be writing out of their creative voice, the one who likes to break the rules, get dirty, and play with things that might blow up. Y’know. Like the average two-year-old.

The critical voice murders stories. The critical voice doesn’t understand them. The critical voice learned criticism at the age of ten (if it was lucky) or 12 or in high school or God forbid, college, which means that the critical voice is 10-21 years behind the creative voice in understanding what makes storytelling work.

Or to mix the metaphor from my earlier analogy, the critical voice is learning storytelling as a second language, and is, most of the time, caught up in finding the right word.

The creative voice speaks fluent storytelling and knows that sometimes you use the word “desk” to hurry the story along, because you don’t want a reader to get hung up on what a “escritoire” is. The “escritoire” might be accurate—someone might be dealing with an antique writing desk from France—but the last thing a storyteller wants is the listener (reader) to stop and contemplate a word while the story barrells forward.

There are a couple of reasons why this word-versus-story thing has become a problem. The first is that we all call ourselves “writers” not “storytellers.” Writers write. We put words on the page. And we forget that we’re putting words on the page in service of a story.

There’s a reason that Shakespeare, who writes in beautiful poetic language, can be translated into every language in the world and performed in every language. The man was a hauntingly brilliant storyteller.

The night I saw the Patrick Stewart version of MacBeth in London was a night in which I didn’t sleep at all. The play and the performers scared the living crap out of me. I’m still haunted by that version of the great play, because I got lost in a terrible, frightening story that’s still relevent today.

Another reason that writers get lost in the words? People who call themselves editors. Those people, generally speaking, are failed writers. Or they’re people who never wrote at all.

During the Masters Golf Tournament this past April, Dean and I went to the Golf Channel on Saturday night to see the leader board. We hadn’t heard all day who was leading.

Turns out the leader was a young man that I’d never heard of named Scottie Scheffler. We tuned in as night was falling on the practice tees. The only person out there, still hitting golf balls, was Scottie Scheffler.

The announcers were having a fit. No one else was out there. Scheffler was hurting himself, they said. He was tiring himself. He needed to go rest, for heaven’s sake.

There was only one announcer who had actually played professional golf. He was trying to get a word in edgewise, saying that Scheffler always hit balls until dark after a round. He snapped this at one of the announcers who replied with something like I may never have played golf, but I have studied it for forty years, and believe me, he’s going to hurt himself tomorrow.

Scheffler hurt himself so badly the next day that he won the entire tournament. Masterfully.

I laughed when that non-golfer announcer got snippy. I said to Dean, I may never have written a book, but I have read hundreds of them in my life, and believe me, I know more about writing than writers…

We both chuckled.

But it’s accurate. Because most people who edit are people who can’t make a living as a writer. I say this as an award-winning professional editor who realized thirty years ago that she had to choose between being a writer and being an editor. Believe me, it was no choice. Writing is what I do.

I still edit now and then, but I make my living as a writer. As a storyteller.

And the only times Editor Me ever asks my writers to change something in a story are when the action is unclear and confusion and/or when a detail needs to be added or dropped to make the story work.

I never go in and line edit. I don’t question the writer’s word choice. I don’t mess with the writer’s punctuation.

I certainly don’t do what a young editor did to Dean earlier this year, and tell a writer that the words are screwed up and that’s probably because the writer wrote fast.

I want writers to write fast, so that they don’t think about the words. I want the stories to flow, like a conversation flows. And if they end up saying “pretty antique French writing desk” instead of “escritoire” well, then, maybe the protagonist who is telling the story would say “pretty antique French writing desk.” Maybe the protagonist would say, “pretty little desk with all kinds of curliques on the legs.” Or maybe the protagonist would say “ugly little desk that looked so fragile I didn’t want to get near it.”

In none of the examples with the word “protagonist” is the word “escritoire” appropriate. Yet baby editors and editors who focus on words would insist on it.

Because they’re seeing words, not the story.

So how does this make writers fail?

In oh, so many ways.

  1. Writers who focus on words and grammar are letting other people dictate their stories. There are rules and the rules need to be followed, dammit. At best, the story glimmers beneath the flaccid prose. At worst, the story is invisible beneath the rhythm of predictable words and paragraphs of the same length.
  2. 2. Writers who hire developmental editors are really letting other people dictate their stories. Because the only person who knows how a story should go is the writer. The story lives in her head, afterall, not in the head of the developmental editor or the critique group or the 3-star reviewers on various ebook sites. (See my book, The Pursuit of Perfection, for more on this.)
  3. People who focus on words may have a great story to tell, but they tell it in a boring way. The problem is that people who focus on words focus more on words as time goes by, and lose track of the stories. So their books get worse rather than better. The stories become impossible to follow—for everyone, including the writer who has probably forgotten all the good stuff about the narrative thread in their quest to tell the story the “right” way.
  4. People who focus on words rewrite. A lot. Which not only dumbs down the story and silences the creative voice, it also slows the writer down. These are the people who can’t understand how other writers publish more than one book every year or two. How do you rewrite it? They might ask. They don’t like the answer, which is I really don’t.

If you want to know how to do this, pick up our workshop Writing A Clean First Draft.

  1. People who focus on words are too busy “perfecting” their fiction to learn all the other aspects to having a career. They don’t have time to learn how to run a business. Or to learn copyright. Or, quite honestly, to improve their storytelling.
  2. People who focus on words ultimately learn how to write forgettable prose. That’s the bottom line. Writing like everyone else, dumbing down the voice, and ignoring storytelling makes these writers mediocre at best.
  3. People who focus on the words forgot how to have fun. We writers tell ourselves stories. We don’t fumble around for words. We imagine things. And play with things. And create wildly inappropriate things. We also fail a lot. And that’s okay. Failure is learning. Failure can be fun too.

Remember the example I started with? The conversations in Spanish? I was sitting quietly in a café in Paris years ago with a bunch of booksellers. One of the booksellers gave me the side eye after about fifteen minutes. He said, in French, I know you understand us. You’re laughing in the right places and paying close attention. How come you’re not talking?

I said—or tried to say—I don’t speak French very well at all.

Well, the only way you’ll learn is to try, he said, and to fail spectacularly.

I think about his advice often. It led to a wonderful conversation with my French publisher. She spoke terrible English; I spoke terrible French. Somehow we managed a conversation in both languages that we both enjoyed a lot. And we understood each other.

That bookseller’s actually the reason that I feel…well, not confident…but able to have conversations in Spanish. I figure failing is fine, as long as I manage to be understood.

Writers who write words have short careers, if they manage to have a career at all. Writers who write stories, using words as a tool to do so, have long careers.

Focus on storytelling, folks. That’s the secret to being a writer.

Storytelling.

********

 

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“Business Musings: Why Writers Fail Part 6: Words” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / photography33

14 responses to “Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 6): Words”

  1. Aniket Gore says:

    Thanks for this post. It hit the point.
    I’ve been following Dean’s blog for years, and that’s how I stumbled on Depth and Writing in Dark. Those are fantastic workshops, and in there I learned to focus on story and one draft and that changed the whole game for me. Thanks to both of you.

  2. Grace Wen says:

    I’m re-learning Mandarin Chinese (I grew up in a Chinese-speaking household), and that’s definitely a language where someone can lose the story/meaning if they concentrate solely on the words. Mandarin uses a lot of idioms (“chengyu”) as linguistic shortcuts. Example: for the phrase “add legs to a drawing of a snake,” a person too focused on the words would wonder about the drawer’s artistic talent while missing that the real meaning of the phrase is “to overdo.” Or a more relevant example in these times: “three men make a tiger” has nothing to do with creating wild felines–it’s a warning that a repeated lie becomes interpreted as a fact.

  3. Em says:

    This post made me think about a lovely character I enjoy writing, and who is a fantasy being. The way he speaks changes at times due to magical influences. I wouldn’t have written his story otherwise, but I heard his voice very clearly. And I felt that it was a good and personal story.

    Also thought about “emotional languages”. English is my second language, but I learned it a young age and it carries emotion for me same as my native language. I’ve heard people talk about how some languages carry emotion and others don’t even though they’re fluent in the language.

  4. Elise M. Stone says:

    This was a great column, Kris. I’ve heard Dean talk about critical voice many times, especially in the courses, but this is a slightly different take on the topic.

    I had to smile re “escritoire”. Earlier this week, I was doing a quick read=through of my latest book before sending it off to my beta readers. I had one of those words which I had chosen very carefully, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought, no one’s going to know what this means, and I doubt this character would think of it that way anyway. So I replaced it with a much simpler word, which although it might not be as accurate, at least wasn’t going to throw every single reader out of the story.

    Thanks again for writing these columns.

  5. allynh says:

    I am better in “prose” than in “person”. I am always forgetting words and have to stumble through what I’m trying to say, where with prose I can cycle back and assemble the prose.

    There is John Banville, and Benjamin Black. They are the same person with different ways of writing.

    Banville writes literary novels, focusing on sentences, and takes years to craft a book.

    Black writes Irish crime fiction, focusing on Story, and writes a book in about five months.

    Here is an interview where he explains the difference between them.

    John Banville
    https://charlierose.com/videos/16534

    At some point Banville became jealous of Black’s success, so killed Black off.

    With His New Mystery Novel, John Banville Kills Off a Pen Name
    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/01/books/john-banville-snow-benjamin-black.html

  6. I majored in English. It took me years to jettison the English Major Critical Voice (it’s a pernicious strain). Every time I sat down to write my first novel (which took 3 years – entirely too long) I could feel my breathing shorten and my body seize up with anxiety. It really was that bad. I almost quit.

    By the time I (finally) got to the end of my first book, I was having so much fun not caring about the words and letting the story flow that I managed to sew my critical voice’s mouth shut.

    Back then, I thought, for some intensely stupid reason, that I had to write literary novels. I discovered that while I love many literary novels – I f***ing hated writing them because I spent so much time gnashing my teeth and pulling my hair out over the damned words.

    I could go on and on about how the literary world (and English departments) kill the dreams of so many but I’ll stop now. Suffice it to say that if your child desperately wants to write books, don’t encourage them to major in English.

  7. Linda Niehoff says:

    Thank you so much for this. Completely timely for me this week. I read a short story collection that really inspired me but has me thinking in terms of words instead of story. How I’d love to be able to write like that writer! Couldn’t figure out why what I’m working on feels flat – I think it’s this. I lost the flow because I’m looking for the right word instead of getting swept up in the story. Thank you for this post.

  8. Rob says:

    I find, even after all these years, that I still struggle with this. So much of my early education in writing (both the stuff I learned in school and the stuff I taught myself through reading books and articles of writing advice) seemed to focus heavily on the WORDS, even though it was always STORY that held my interest. Of course, as I creep into my late 40s, I do notice that I often get stuck for a word even in regular conversation. So that isn’t helping matters. ?

  9. I needed to read this today. A reminder of my fear, not of the words (thought that happens too), but the story. A fear of entering the story and getting lost not knowing where it is going. I shall go and read, get lost in another story, because getting lost in stories is the only way to learn stories.

  10. Keith West says:

    Kris,

    It’s rare if these posts don’t resonate with me on some level, but this one really spoke to me. I had just finished writing for the night, and it made me think about what I was focusing on, words or story. I’m glad to say it was primarily story.

    And thanks for sharing about your Spanish classes. I’m trying to learn that language as well, but on Duolingo rather than in a formal class.

    Best,

    Keith

  11. Kristi N. says:

    I try to think about writing the same way I thought about riding dressage: one might ride beautifully, but as one approaches mastery of riding, the focus shifts to the horse, and the rider disappears. Everyone is watching the horse, who has become breathtaking through the partnership with the rider.

    Someday, I want to disappear so all anyone sees is the story.

  12. Kris, I think this is my favorite post so far! I absolutely call myself a storyteller. I tell stories.

    This reminds me of a scene from the movie Auntie Mame.
    “Wouldn’t it be simpler to say, on the day I was born it rained in Buffalo?” (Mame)
    “But it’s drab.” (Writer)
    “It’s drab…but it’s clear! (Mame)

  13. Brilliant column. My colleagues and I were just talking about writing vs storytelling this morning. Your column encapsulated our chat perfectly.

    I only disagree with one point. Over the course of my career, I have never regretted getting the input of a developmental editor. I don’t see it as dictating my story but as helping me polish my creation and make it shine. After all, it is my decision whether or not to make the suggestions they suggest.

    I liken it landscaping. I can throw my plants in the garden my way and have a perfectly nice garden OR I can have a consultant give me advice and make the garden beautiful.

    Thanks for these columns. I look forward to them every Thursday.

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