Bookshelf: 4 reference books to sharpen the details in your writing

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Vintage postcard: Beautiful bridge on Pennsylvania’s Turnpike in the Bedford Narrows.

One of the authors I worked with described his home as “El Rancho Indebto.” That description — from author Daniel Gray’s books, such as Adobe ImageStyler In Depth — has stuck with me even though it has been years since I’ve worked in educational publishing.

Dan had a way of twisting words to make them more interesting amid chapters on how to apply the techniques of web design and develop software expertise. I have to apologize in arrears for probably thwarting some of his descriptions. For example, I remember him writing the lesser-known “stop on a nickel,” and I might have changed it to the tired, old “stopped on a dime.”

In any case, finding the right words, the less tired words, the memorable words, can bring your writing to life. It’s a constant battle I’ve fought by seeking the telling details that deepen scenes.

In my search for the right words, I’ve accumulated a few trusted books that go beyond the thesaurus and Google searches. Books I continue to turn to include:

Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier – Struggling to describe the lights and mirrors in a setting? This reference gives you a list, along with short definitions, to help you decide if your setting has a gaslight or a torchiere. A pier glass or a looking glass. See the “Lamps and Mirrors” section.

The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs – The subtitle is “A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers.” Want to give a character a trademark ring or pendant? Scan the “Common Emblems and Symbols” chapter. Consider the implications of whether your character would wear a peaceful ankh (a “loop-topped cross”) or a human skull, “as a symbol of mortality, death’s head, memento mori.” This book is half word lists and half literary excerpts so you can see how authors have employed these details.

DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary – This book is all about images and labels. Want to know the name for that little chute between your character’s nose and lips? A philtrum. (As an aside, some believe the width of this chute is an indicator of a person’s fertility.) Need your character to encounter a horse and touch its leg or head? You might want to know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock. A fetlock is a joint somewhat similar to a human’s ankle, and a forelock is the hair between a horse’s ears that often falls forward like bangs.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – This book is part of a series of emotion and setting thesauruses. Want to go beyond saying your character is upset? Look at the “Agitation” chapter and browse through the physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, and other cues to deepen your character’s responses and lead to telling details. If your character was abandoned or neglected as a child, check another book in the series, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma for examples, false beliefs, fears, potential personality traits, triggers, and more.

Why turn to books when there’s Wikipedia, Google, and other online resources? The more curated content found within these reference books (whether paper or ebook) can save you from falling into a rabbit hole (or as Dan Gray might say, a woodchuck hole) of clicks.

And speaking of clicks and tired descriptors, check your writing against the visual essay “The Physical Traits that Define Men & Women in Literature” written by Erin Davis and illustrated by Liana Sposto at The Pudding.

Davis scanned 2,000 books, including bestsellers, prize winners, and books commonly assigned in U.S. high schools and colleges. She used a language processor to see what body parts and adjectives were most commonly used to describe male and female characters. The interactive visual aspects of the Pudding essay allow you to test some of your assumptions about gender and descriptors. (Thank you to Jane Friedman’s “Electric Speed” newsletter for recommending this article.)

Revision: Use text-to-speech in Word to hear what works (and what doesn’t) in your writing

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Vintage postcard: Where Stephen Collins Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” near Bardstown.

Before the daily 11 a.m. deadline, the loudest sounds in the newsroom came from reporters tapping out stories on their keyboards. There wasn’t much talking, but lips moved as the reporters tested out their words in whispers before filing their articles with the editors.

I tell my students about this. “It’s what professional writers do. Read your work aloud. You’ll hear the glitches and errors. I do it all the time.”

Some of the deepest editing I’ve done came while recording a short story for Superstition Review (both audio and text of “To Walk Chalk” appeared in Issue 21). I had trouble with the Audible sound editing application and background noises, so not only did I read the story aloud several times, but I also had to listen to it again and again. This aural scrutiny led me beyond fixing the usual sentence errors to more in-depth revisions regarding characterization and recurring elements that tightened the focus of the story. I continue to work toward this higher level of revision in my current projects.

One drawback of reading your work aloud is that part of you is performing, whether or not anyone is listening. If you’re preparing for a public appearance or recording an audio file, this practice is great. However, if revision is your goal, the performative aspects of reading aloud—whether to look up while reading, whether you’re reading too fast or too slow, and how your voice sounds—can be distracting.

This is where the “Speak” feature in Microsoft Word can help. (Thank you to my student, T.J., who mentioned this to me.) Unlike older “readers,” such as databases that provide an uninflected robot voice to read journal articles in either an American or British accent, Word’s text-to-speech feature usually seems smooth enough to let you focus on your words, not the tone of the software.

When I’m listening and not distracted by the physical act of reading, I catch more sentence-level glitches and repetitions along with larger issues that show up throughout the text. For example, do the descriptions of a particular character or setting provide a cohesive mindset or image? Are there unintended contradictions or missing bits of information?

I added the Speak feature to the Quick Access Toolbar at the top of my Word screen, and I’m able to pop into and out of hearing how my words are working. I just highlight the paragraphs I want to hear and click on the Speak icon (as I’ve done with this blog post).

To add the Speak feature to your Word screen you’ll need to follow the five steps explained at: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Use-the-Speak-text-to-speech-feature-to-read-text-aloud-459e7704-a76d-4fe2-ab48-189d6b83333c

No matter how you do it, the act of listening to your words, is a useful revision tactic. It’s time well spent, as is the time spent setting up the text-to-speech feature in Word.

Add Speak to the Quick Access Toolbar

In case the link to Microsoft’s Office Support site breaks, I’ll copy the steps here. Add the Speak command to your Quick Access Toolbar by doing the following while you’re in Word:

  1. Next to the Quick Access Toolbar, click “Customize Quick Access Toolbar.”
    Quick access toolbar in Word
  2. Click “More Commands.”
  3. In the “Choose commands from” list, select “All Commands.”
  4. Scroll down to the “Speak” command, select it, and then click “Add.”
  5. Click “OK.”

Again, here is the link: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Use-the-Speak-text-to-speech-feature-to-read-text-aloud-459e7704-a76d-4fe2-ab48-189d6b83333c

A newer three R’s for writing: Reject, revise, and repeat

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Vintage postcard: Sky ride, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933

Some literary magazines offer a few sentences of feedback if you pay a couple of dollars more for your submissions. A few sentences or a paragraph or two is what you get—not a full critique.

While a full critique can cost hundreds of dollars, a couple of dollars seems worthwhile to get something beyond the generic rejection of “doesn’t fit our needs,” “wasn’t right for us,” “unable to accept,” “not selected for publication,” and so on.

Note: On Submittable.com, you can search using the words feedback or comment to get a list of current submission opportunities that have a feedback option.

Nonetheless, feedback isn’t always easy to take. Here’s an excerpt from comments I received recently:

I liked this story, but a good amount happens here that doesn’t move the story forward. Some of it is in extraneous description; some of it is action. Reading these bits, I can see how they are good writing, but they don’t quite contribute to the story, which bogs down the reading experience overall.

This feedback applied to a short-short story of about 700 words. My first reaction was, “If you took out the description and the action, what would be left?” But then, the feedback only referred to “extraneous” description and “some” action. Where was it?

I reread the story and let it sit for a week. For me, time is an important revision tool. You come back to a piece with many assumptions forgotten, much like a new reader. More than once, I’ve reread a rejected manuscript and thought, “Rightly so.” Problems jumped out at me, but this short-short wasn’t one of those.

Having been taught to show not tell, I looked at elements in the story that were supposed to show. What I was showing didn’t seem to be coming across, if the feedback was any indication. I brought back a few of the story elements I had cut earlier. This also involved reordering some material to smooth progressions and connections. I had waffled over much of this earlier in the drafting process and had opted for a more streamlined piece, leaving much lurking but unsaid. Now, I was putting some of these things back in.

The story is resting again, like dough. We’ll see what rises with the next rereading, as well as the next steps in the submission/feedback process. Maybe these revisions have gone too far, and I’ll need to dial them back again. We’ll see.

Play with your words: Poetry craft, reading & revision

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Vintage postcard: A charming lily pool in the heart of Florida

When I was in grad school a few of the poetry students seemed to be more, er, playful. I remember a potluck dinner at a professor’s house where one of the poetry contributions was an 8½-by-11-inch pan of Jell-O with mini bottles of booze gelled into it. The liquor was plucked out and consumed. The blue gelatin, not so much.

Outside of parties, there seemed to be little overlap between students and faculty in the poetry track and those in the fiction track. In hindsight, I wish my program had required us to take workshops and literature classes in other genres. For me, the magical realism class taught by Alberto Ríos offered the most in terms of genre blending with topics ranging from Dadaist poetry and images to novels by Isabel Allende and others.

Post-MFA I felt ill-prepared when my first teaching gig included a creative writing class meant to cover both fiction and poetry. I had much more to offer students in the fiction unit. For the poetry segments of the course, I relied heavily on the textbook.

Reading about poetry

Through the years I worked to make up for this gap in both my reading and my work in poetry. A few books I return to time and again are:

  • Poet’s Choice by Edward Hirsch. The book collects his columns from Washington Post Book World and covers an array of poets and poetry styles. The individual columns offer platforms for further reading, “from ancient times to the present,” and for drafting.
  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. With sections on “Subjects for Writing,” “The Poet’s Craft,” and “Twenty-minute Writing Exercises,” this book is geared for classes or self-study. Wondering how to structure a sestina or how to address death and grief in poetry? This book can help.
  • The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser. This book is subtitled “Practical Advice for Beginning Poets,” and that’s what it was for me. This book helped me play with words and possibilities, even when I was writing about heavy topics.

Reading poetry itself

One of the usual prescriptions for writers is to read. Kooser’s book led me to subscribe to his column and others like it. Daily and weekly poems pop into my inbox from sources including:

  • American Life in Poetry—Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, sends out a weekly poetry column. Each column includes his introduction to the poem and some basics about the author of the week’s poem. Access the columns online at americanlifeinpoetry.org or subscribe (free) to receive the week’s poem in your inbox. The column’s supporters include The Poetry Foundation.
  • Poem-a-Day—The Academy of American Poets offers, both on their website or via free email subscription, a variety of poetry that includes pieces by contemporary writers, works in progress, and samples of centuries-old verse. Each Poem-a-Day email has a statement from the poet about the genesis of their work or a historical note, as well as a brief author bio.

Any of these inbox poems can lead to deeper dives into the poetry of individual writers. Reading a whole book from a particular poet can help you connect to their work in a way that a single poem often cannot.

NOTE: Content on the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets websites also cover the craft of poetry and are a useful accompaniment to the books mentioned earlier.

Seeing revision in progress

Another helpful area of reading has focused on revision. One book in particular made me feel like I’d observed a college poetry workshop in that it took student-level poems and offered critiques from an array of teacher/poets:

  • Poets Teaching: The Creative Process edited by Alberta T. Turner. This is an older book, published in 1980, that I rescued from a bin headed to the college Dumpsters. (Who knew that indexing books in online databases costs more than keeping the books on the library shelves? But that’s a matter for another day.) This book advanced my understanding of line, exposition, sound, and so much more.

Each student poem in the book received extensive comments (sometimes contradictory) from two or more of the thirty-plus teachers, among them David St. John, William Stafford, and Thomas Lux. Occasionally, the teachers offered line-level suggestions for the more advanced poems to show how handling lines in different ways led to different effects.

Some feedback in this book made me shudder. Individual teachers didn’t hold back from labeling writing as “boring.” One even said, “it may turn out her abilities do not lie in writing, but in some other direction entirely.” Yikes! Is this any indication of what goes on in college-level poetry workshops? Or is it just a few of these teacher/poets?

Play with your words

Beyond reading poetry, craft, and revision texts, I’ve learned you should play with your words. Let yourself do the writing equivalent of chilling mini-bar liquor bottles in a tray of blue Jell-O. You can always pluck them out, throw them out, consume them, or turn them (or the Jell-O) into something else entirely in the next draft.

Worst Writing Group Ever

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Vintage postcard: Dumping ore into a pocket at a shaft station, Cliff Copper Mine near Phoenix

For the past decade or so my writing group has, on average, taken months to get back to me. In a couple cases it has taken them more than a year. Good turnaround is about six to eight weeks.

When they do respond it has usually been brief and vague. These may sound familiar:

  • “After careful consideration, we’re sorry to report…”
  • “We enjoyed reading it, and though it doesn’t quite…”
  • “We read your submission carefully and regret…”

Time

A benefit of continuing with this group has been time:

  • Time for my own work to become distant enough that I can read it like a laser-eyed stranger
  • Time for me to read other writers (both successful and less so)
  • Time to further develop the craft of revision, storytelling, structure, line, and so much more

Encouragement

Another benefit has been encouragement, especially when editors include personalized notes, more detailed rejections, or invitations to submit to them again.

Nonetheless, I still had a strong reaction when I read the following quote in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer:

“[G]etting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, [said an assistant editor at The Missouri Review], when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never get the chance to read the writer’s work again. She noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.”

Friedman went on to describe the social media response to the original blog post, “Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good” by Michael Nye. “His post provoked a significant backlash from writers who felt tired of banging their heads against the wall—pursuing success within a system that never seemed to work that well in the first place,” Friedman wrote.

While rejections no longer sting as much as they used to, I connected to this conversation and not just because I have rejections from TMR dating back to 2002.

Paying for feedback

I’ve found a couple bright spots. One is the “in progress” designator in Submittable, which may indicate when my work has made it past the first readers.

A larger one is the feedback option offered by some publications, such as Tahoma Literary Review. Sometimes it’s a small fee for a few paragraphs of commentary. Other times it’s a lot more money for an in-depth critique. I’ve paid for an in-depth review on a project that was especially important to me through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Continuing Studies. Faculty member Christine DeSmet offered concrete feedback beyond what I’ve received from family readers and writer friends, who might have been concerned about hurting my feelings.

Persistence

One thing my continued participation in this “writing group” shows is persistence. In the face of years of rejection, I continue.