Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Putting Things in Place: Finding the [right/interesting/perfect] Words for Your Story

by Ray Dean

Why do I always feel like I should start these posts with the disclaimer of: This might not be for you, but that’s okay, your process might not work for me either, but here we go anyway.

Having been a dancer and an actor before, I know a little bit about the creative process and skill building. While there are techniques that could and should be used by all, the nuances of each person’s talent and self expression are just that… personal. You learn techniques from other people, ‘stuff’ that work for them. Sometimes it works for you too. Or sometimes you find a variation that suits you better.

So here I am, explaining something I’ve come to use during my process. ‘Placemarking.’ In the past I’ve found myself stressed while I’m writing, worried over the perfect word choice or other stopping points during my first draft, I’d let frustration build and sometimes…

Okay, let’s be honest, a number of times, I’ve let it get the best of me and stop me cold. I might convince myself that I’ll just come back to it later… and then, it’ll be easy. Right. Are you giving me that polite ‘awwww’ smile? Tempted to pat me on the head and sigh? Yeah, I can see that.

But sometimes you have to adjust your plan. Change your technique. Find something that works better. Or in this case, something that works. And gets me working.

I’d like think of this technique as a conscious effort to write more, and beat myself up less.


Names are important. Yes, I hear the grumbling. I’m not saying that you didn’t know that!

When you sit down to write, you won’t always find the perfect name right then and there. Maybe before you’ve started to write the story, you’ve done your research. You looked through name lists, name meaning sites, census lists… but nothing feels quite right. And yet you know there’s someone THERE. They need to talk, they need to move around the room, and gosh darn it, other characters actually have to interact with them!

So what do you do when you need a character name, but you need to get on with writing the story? I stick in a ‘placemarker’ to keep things moving.

Specifically, I use letters. It may be different for others, but I rarely use the letter “X” so if I have a character with no name that leaps out at me, they become XX.

XX sat up and looked up at me with an apologetic smile. “Hold on a second, sweets.” She ducked down again, her voice muffled a bit. “I thought I brought my breakfast with me, in my bag…. somewhere…”

If there’s another character that pops up (I don’t think I’ve had this happen more than once), ZZ works.  (I don’t just use ONE letter, it could be dangerous)

Later when the epiphany happens… you know, when the sun shines through the clouds, seraphim flutter down beside you and scream that name in your ear... You can do a search and replace and suddenly XX becomes Elspeth or Jane or Mary or something more exotic based on time period or location. But waiting around while I debate the ins and outs of Annie or Mary, kills the forward motion of progress. And as time and experience have shown me, I get that much closer to ‘giving up and going to do something else.’

You could always just put a ‘generic’ name in for the character and ‘search and replace’ that later, but I’ve found that if I use a name it might start to color that character for me, giving it whatever qualities I usually associate with the name. Don’t understand that? Maybe you’re a lucky one that hasn’t started to use a name for a character and then remembered all the people with the same name that have ticked you off in the past. But not me.

(Please check before you replace ALL, you might accidentally replace something you want to keep - that’s why it’s important to NOT use a single letter as a placeholder)

Words - Vocabulary

Sometimes when you’re writing a sentence you have that moment when a big _____ opens up. You know what you’re thinking about, but for some reason you can’t quite come up with ‘that word.’  It doesn’t even have to be a ‘hard’ word. The mind can get caught up on any number of simple ideas. The point is NOT to get upset about it.

Why beat yourself up over a moment of ____. When I was writing the ‘name’ section above, I got to this sentence:

...You looked through name lists, name meaning sites, ...

For the life of me I couldn’t come up with the word CENSUS. I knew what it was… a periodic accounting of the population… yada yada yada… but the word CENSUS was just… not there. For that one, where I’m looking for the ‘name’ of something, if I had access to the internet, I could type the keywords and search for the words.

But there will be times when that’s not necessarily an option.  Or when the word that I’m looking for isn’t just an A=B scenario. In this instance, I typed in [per pop survey]. And a few sentences later, I remembered. Dropped back and replace the [ ] with the word.

When you’re writing and you’re looking for a descriptive term for someone/something. Eye color, expression, tone, quality of movement. In the past this has been a crippling thing at times. The need to come up with the ‘perfect’ word right now.  That’s a pretty big demand. It’s not just a matter of a rote activity like stand, sit, bark, sorry, getting carried away. So if I’m writing about a character looking at another character, instead of my muse wagging a finger at me and chuckling for my lack of perfect word choice, I can say…

… it would have been so simple to ignore the look on her face. But it broke his heart to see her huddled in the corner so (sad/depressed/heartbroken)...    None of those words actually convey the meaning I might be looking for, but I know what I want to write next, so I don’t put the parking brake on and sit there with the engine running, wasting gas.

And I’m not saying you have to WAIT until the whole draft is done to go back to this one. But I am saying don’t just sit there and argue with yourself to find that perfect word right there in that moment. You may be starting the next paragraph when inspiration strikes you from on high. Or you might be three chapters further down the line and ‘wham’ it smacks you between the eyes.

Toss that word in if the inspiration strikes you, but don’t ruminate on it too much. This way you know what ballpark you’re playing in. And sometimes throwing down words that are ‘close’ will push that word from the tip of your tongue to the tips of your fingers.

And there’s nothing wrong with the scenario where you get through your first draft, you work out the character arc for that character and when you go back through on your first edit… and now you know a little bit more about that character and the word is ‘there.’

Editorial Stuff

Turning off that ‘Inner Editor’ (IE) - what a great idea. And sometimes it’s just not possible to relegate that pesky editor to the cold dark corner in the back of your mind. So why send them away. Make them work, but under ‘your’ instructions.

When I’m writing a draft and I feel the IE hovering over my shoulder biting one hand’s nails to the quick and using the other to reach forward like Dracula’s bony finger pointing at the line that I’m working on, I take that moment to let them talk. I write down their comments.

[check facts]
[more description]
[how does she know?]

… just a few words so that I know what to look for when I go back.

I make sure the IE knows “I’ve got this. Don’t worry, I’ll go back to this... Later.”

And then the inner editor takes a step back and I move on.

Could I stop and ‘fix’ things right then and there? Sure? But it’s a double edged sword. Putting the brakes on now might put a hitch in the flow of what you’re doing.  I find that ‘placemarking’ the changes you want to make later lets you focus on writing new words. 

I find that these methods of ‘placemarking’ have helped me produce my drafts faster, speeding the flow of my writing. But along with the methods, I’ve had to change my mind set. It was a conscious decision to do things this way. I had to make this an active effort, a policy of my process, because fighting yourself during the creative process is counterproductive.

Why frustrate yourself when the whole point is ‘getting a draft you can work with?’

Have you done something like this in the past? Do you do this now? How did it/does it work for you?