Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Search and Destroy: Word War--by Ellen Jensen Abbott

This month our topic is words, and like most writers I love words: the sound, the heft, the way they capture an idea or a feeling or a moment so precisely. But today I want to spend a little time on some words that I like less. It’s not that I don’t like them--heaven forbid! They’re words, after all. But there are words I find it very useful to remove from my manuscripts. I love the “find” function on my computer because I can ferret out all the words that weaken my writing.

The first class of words that I search and destroy are the ones that I overuse when I am writing without my editing hat on. Like a lot of writers, I rely too much on eyes to carry the weight of emotion, so I search for “eyes,” “gaze,” and “look.” I also do a lot of “wincing” and “clenching” of teeth. “Breath” or “breathe” can also be an overused indicator of emotion. And don’t get me started on blushing! So I find all these references and look for other ways to let my reader in on my character’s feelings.

Then there are the unnecessary adverbs: only, still, just, at least, even, soon. Many of these can be deleted altogether. At the very least (eek! adverb!) I want to be sure they don’t show up three times on the same page!

I also do a “find” for all the being verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been. In a 300 page manuscript, this takes a long time. But it’s worth it because I find all the places where I can ramp up my verbs, get rid of participles, and make sure that my voice is active.

Finally there are the verbs that indicate sense perceptions: taste, feel, smell, hear, see. Most of my novels and stories are in close third or first person. While writing a draft, I am constantly reminding myself to filter the events, the other characters, the setting through the consciousness of my main character. That’s what writing in close third or first person requires. But a side-effect of this constant filter is that I end up with a lot of sentences like:

“Martha heard the horses clatter into the stable yard.”


“The fabric felt rough again Bertram’s skin”

Fine sentences, as far as they go, which is not far enough. Too much filtering can distance the reader from the action. By reading a manuscript particularly for these sensory words I can do some important revising that brings more energy to my writing and engages my reader more thoroughly. For example, “Martha heard the horses clatter into the stable yard” becomes “the horses clattered into the yard.” With this revision, I get rid of a passive verb “heard” and move “clatter”-- a much more exciting verb--into a prominent position. I also put my readers in the scene because they are now hearing the clatter themselves instead of being told that Martha heard it. Similarly, “the fabric felt rough again Bertram’s skin” becomes “the rough fabric chafed Bertram’s skin.” Again, I’ve replaced a weak verb, “felt” with the much more interesting verb “chafe.”

In my last manuscript I cut out 100 pages of text simply by tightening. I didn’t cut any chapters or pages, of even very many whole paragraphs. I tightened and tightened and tightened. Some of this tightening came through search and destroy techniques and the result was a leaner, more active manuscript.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Yo Queer-O Un Kervaza (Brian Katcher)

You never know the value of words until you can't use 'em. I took three years of Spanish in high school, but didn't pay a lick of attention. I'd never use that stuff.

Ten years later I was standing in a Mexican hardware store, desperately wishing I knew how to say 'toilet plunger' in Spanish.

I lived in Mexico from 1998-2001, teaching English to kindergartners. And while my students could generally figure out what I was trying to say, it was when dealing with adults that I had the most difficult time communicating. Even when I mastered the basics of conversational Spanish, problems would arise. Here are some of the best mistranslations by myself, and my American/Canadian colleagues.

Your child is having trouble because he's lazy = Your child is having trouble because he's ugly.

Please, speak slower = Please, speak farther away. (They kept backing up)

The toys were cheap = The toys were drunk.

I don't wear a jacket because I'm hot = I don't wear a jacket because I'm horny.

I can't find (street name) = I want to buy a screwdriver.

I don't want this cucumber = I don't want my penis.

Of course, it worked in reverse. EFL kids would often write such gems as Who cut the cheese in here?  or  I beat my meat and it is good.

 Recently, my latest book, THE IMPROBABLE THEORY OF ANA AND ZAK, was released in Spanish.

Yes, the version for Spain is different than the Latin American edition. But it brings me great pleasure to get letters from readers in South America. I'd love to visit my publisher in Argentina one day and tell him Mi tio esta enfermo, pero la calle es verde.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

I can spell it even though I can't say it (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

For my foray into the topic of words, I thought I'd talk about words that I've pronounced incorrectly, because you can't always tell from looking at a word how it's pronounced.

The first one I remember mangling was "machine." As a precocious young reader, I found a book in the house and began reading it out loud to my mother, to show her how well I could do. She interrupted me to ask what on earth a "ma-CHYNE" (pronounced with a hard "ch" and rhyming with "line") was. When I showed her the word, she said, "Oh, ma-SHEEN!"

Then there was "anxiety." I knew the word "anxious," pronounced "ANK-shus," so naturally my new word was "ANK-shuh-tee," right? I nearly laughed when I heard a classmate pronounce it "ang-ZYE-uh-tee." There wasn't even a G or a Z in it! Where did he come up with that crazy pronunciation?

As it turned out, he got that crazy pronunciation from real life, and I was wrong.

Recently, I discovered that "unguent," which I had been mentally pronouncing as "UN-jent," is really "UN-gwent," an awkward-sounding word that still makes me shudder. I like my erroneous version better.

But hey, I still refuse to use a soft G in "gif." I will go on mentally pronouncing "gif" like "gift" without a T for as long as possible.

Today, when re-encountering the word "balustrade," I realized I don't really know how to pronounce it. Is it "BAL-you-strahd" (my first instinct, influenced by French), or "BAL-you-strayed," or something else?

Be right back.

Neither guess was quite right. My dictionary says, "BAL-uh-strayed." Now I have to retrain that little voice in my head that mentally pronounces words.

I wonder how many other words I'm saying wrong?

Saturday, March 26, 2016


In the fall of 1999, one of the questions on the application to the Honors College at the University of South Carolina was, "What is your favorite word? Explain." I don't remember my explanation, but I remember the word I chose: memory.

I have no idea why I chose that word, but it proved prophetic.

After much hemming and hawing, I wound up as a history major because English departments tend to attract very kind, empathetic people and also the bullies who prey on those people and also I already knew all the poems were about sex. (I would be afraid of offending English departments, but I know they are a little proud of all this. I have an M.A. in English and I taught in an English department for years post-grad school, so I know whereof I speak. It's like Survivor up in there. You just have to find your tribe and hope you don't get voted off the island to be eaten by sharks.)

Plus, in history, the stories are true-ish.

That's where memory comes in.

In the spring of my sophomore year, I took an honors seminar called American Civil War in Art and Literature. Why did I, at the tender age of nineteen already heartily sick of the Civil War, take this course? Recall that I grew up in South Carolina, where we forget nothing that we have made up.

 Again, I do not remember my explanation. Probably the reading list sounded cool. This is why I chose most of my courses.

Though I was blissfully ignorant of it at the time, the decision to enroll in this course set me on a path, not into history, but into the murkier waters of memory and specifically into the ways societies remember their own pasts. Winter break of my sophomore year was the last time I finished a semester cleanly, with no ongoing projects to tarnish my break. Literally the last time in my life. Oh, the end of innocence.

 The following spring I took a course with the same professor called American Memory, where I continued working on the project I began in American Civil War in Art and Literature.

Okay, shoutout break: I can't just call him "the same professor." Dr. Thomas J. Brown of the Department of History at the University of South Carolina has been one of the great influencers of my life and career. Ninety percent of what I know about practicing history, I learned from him. I shudder to think what kind of clumsy historical fiction I might be writing if he hadn't been my teacher. In terms of people who made me what I am, Dr. Brown is in my top ten.

Anyway, memory. Not what happened but what we believe happened. It's human nature to organize events into narratives in order to make sense of things that often don't. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, where we came from, what we did, and why it matters. We do it as individuals and we do it as churches, as businesses, as families, as nations. We speak of institutional memory, of personal memory, of national memory. And often, in collective delusion, we call those memories history.

It's not that we're intentionally lying to ourselves. It's that memory is faulty.

So how does understanding historical memory play into writing historical fiction?

It's often the first thing I think of. What does my audience think happened, if indeed they think anything? One of the challenges of writing and selling The Last Sister is that most people have exactly zero historical memory of anything that happened between the Salem Witch Trials and the American Revolution, so I have to start from scratch. It's useful if people have heard of your time period before.

What do I think happened? Is my memory wrong?

Often, research reveals historical memory to be faulty or just plain wrong. But my readers haven't done the research, and there's no point in my writing something that at best simply reinforces what they already think and at worst is patently false.

Am I limited, then, to writing only stories where history and memory match up? I hope not, because those are few and far between.

The great challenge is to convince readers to come along with me, to make them believe that my version, my interpretation of events, is the true one.

For example, let's accept that it's true that George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree. Then let's write a book in which he does not chop down a cherry tree, for readers who believe that he did, in fact, chop down a cherry tree. I have to convince readers that it is true that George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree, lest they send me angry messages about "Where is the part with the cherry tree?" or worse, tell everyone they know that my book is full of inaccuracies.

If I have any integrity at all, I'm giving them what I believe to be an accurate interpretation. That's what all of us who work in the past do, ultimately. We try to convince readers we're telling the truth, even as we're manipulating their memories to match ours.

It's kind of a cool job.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Words. Magical, funny, and forbidden. -- Jen Doktorski

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

Stephen King wrote that in On Writing.

If books are magic then words are the ingredients writers use to cast spells and mix potions while standing over simmering caldrons.
Whenever I sit down to read a book from my TBR pile or new pages from my critique partners, I’m always amazed by how unique people and worlds are conjured into being by the placement of words on the page. I’m awed and inspired by authors who string together words in ways I never thought possible. (I just started reading To the Lighthouse and the first page left me breathless.) And equally as amazed by those who create beautiful, sensory images with only a few, expertly chosen words. Brown Girl Dreaming comes to mind immediately.

But the words I find the most necessary to my daily wellbeing are the ones that make me laugh. For as long as I can remember, I have been a collector of funny stories and jokes. If something makes me laugh I want to share it with as many people as I can. (I was the kid who felt compelled to read the Sunday comics aloud at the breakfast table.) Laughter heals, offering light during the darkest moments. And in life, as in Shakespeare, there is often great wisdom in the words of fools. Not pretend fools, mind you, like the kind who run for political office. But genuine, fearless fools, who make themselves vulnerable on the chance that their words will be the bright spot in someone else’s day.
Growing up, I don’t know where I would have been without the hilarious columns and books by Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry, or the stand-up comedy of Joan Rivers, Eddie Murphy, and Robin Williams. (I was lucky enough to see the late, great Williams live when he came to my college campus.) George Carlin was also someone I really admired. I saw him perform live at least twice and many more times on TV and I always looked forward to the bit he used to end each performance. It started out as seven dirty words you can’t say on TV and over the years grew to be an extensive list that always, always, always, makes me laugh.

Warning, viewers may find the following offensive, because individually that’s what each word and phrase in this list is intended to do. But when they’re strung together and delivered by Carlin? Magic.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Elasticity of Language (by Patty Blount)

If you're active on social networks, you'll probably run across memes like this:

I especially enjoy this one: 

When was the last time you heard a woman's legs called "gams" or someone exclaim, "Gee, that's swell!"? 

Language is an ever-evolving construct... twenty-first century speech bears only a passing resemblance to Shakespeare's words. Even decade by decade, words fall in and out of favor or die out because the concepts they represent are no longer relevant. (Floppy disk, anybody?)

In my day job, I work in technology and I can't think of any other industry that loves to create new words like this one. Information technology brought us words like modem, fleek ( a word that gained popularity from a video that went viral), respawn, geek, netiquette, emoticon, applet... the list is practically endless. 

Some of us love using old words in new ways... 

let's grow the business and incentivize the team
let's go clubbing
I don't wanna adult today 
What's the big reveal?

Language is all about sharing ideas. It used to really bug me to have to document new words in a software manual -- especially when old words would do. But now that I'm writing fiction, I find creating new words and finding new uses for existing words to be appropriate and dare I say it? -- maybe even necessary. Language is all about interaction... it should change and it should defy archaic grammar rules when our meaning might otherwise be muddied. 

In his novel, COUNTY LINE, Bill Cameron offered commentary on a sad situation... that the prostitutes his hard-boiled detective noticed along a street were entirely too young. And he did so with a single word -- prostitots

The elegance of this never fails to impress me and Bill joins the illustrious ranks of authors like William Gibson, (cyberspace), Mark Twain (hard-boiled - HA! see what I did there?), Shakespeare (swagger, luggage, etc.), Sir Thomas Moore (utopia). 

In this TED Talk, presenter Erin McKean encourages us to go ahead and make new words and gives us six ways to do so, one of which she calls verbing

I just love that. 

Words are our clay. Go forth and, er, mold! 

Friday, March 18, 2016

An Apocalyptically Thrilling Post (Alissa Grosso)

When I was younger, I had a favorite word. I suppose it would be more common to have a favorite food or a favorite music group, but I was a book-obsessed girl, that wanted nothing more than to become a hugely successful and prolific author, and I felt it was very important to have a favorite word. Naturally, that word was apocalyptically.

Why apocalyptically, you ask? I don't really know. You would think that I must have been some very dark and disturbed person to pick such a bleak sort of word as my favorite word. Why not rainbow or unicorn or something more bright and hopeful? I guess I did have a bit of a dark streak, and this was at a time when Winona Ryder was basically the teenage role model, and she was busy making movies like Beetlejuice, Heathers and Edward Scissorhands that tended to more apocalyptically cool then shiny happy rainbow cool.

Speaking of movies, I remember once reading the word apocalyptically in a short movie review in the newspaper and was so thrilled that I had to clip out the review and paste it into my journal so that I could save it forever and ever, and, in fact, it is still somewhere in storage in my attic, but I have to apologize for not taking the time to dig it out so that I could quote it verbatim. I can tell you that it was a review for a movie called Twister, no not the one with Helen Hunt and the flying cows. This was a way cooler and stranger movie with Crispin Glover and a bunch of colorful characters trapped in a house during a tornado. It's a brilliantly weird movie. You should watch it. Here's a trailer for it that I found on YouTube:

As this was in a time when the movies you saw were limited to what was playing at your local theater, was available in your local video store or happened to be aired on television, it would be years before I'd finally get to see Twister. I wasn't disappointed.

Anyway, with words it's not just what they mean but how they sound, and apocalyptically is a truly beautiful sounding word. J. R. R. Tolkien once wrote an essay titled "English and Welsh" in which he praised the phrase cellar door for how beautiful it sounded, and he wasn't the first. Apparently the phrase also appeared in a 1903 novel called Gee-Boy by Cyrus Lauron Hopper in a passage about someone who collected words for their beautiful sounds. Cellar door joining the likes of fanfare and pimpernel and Sphinx. In my humble opinion, apocalyptically sounds even better than all of those pretty words.

It was always my assumption that I would write the sorts of books where I would make use of the word apocalyptically on a regular basis. Then somewhere after I had abandoned 20 or so unfinished novels and completed a couple of more brutally (see what I did there!) awful ones, I read a book by one of my literary heroes. In Stephen King's On Writing there's a part where he rails against the use of adverbs, and it made me think back to my one-time favorite word.

I had yet to write a book that required the use of the word apocalyptically, and now that the great master told me that it was a bad word that would make my writing amateurish and clunky, I might have to avoid it altogether. I'll admit, this made me a little sad. I still had fond feelings for good old apocalyptically, and I felt bad abandoning it.

The truth is, I still haven't written something where I found a use for my favorite word. It does not fit well in to many sentences. I apologize for the misleading title of this post, but I needed to shoehorn apocalyptically in there one way or another. That said, I still have a whole lot of books I want to write, and one of these days, despite Stephen King's command, I'm positive I'm going to get my favorite word into print.

Alissa Grosso has written three young adult novels that don't use the word apocalyptically even once. You can find out more about them and her at

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Searching for Wordlessness by Jody Casella

I am bombarded by words--

choosing words and thinking about words and sometimes even dreaming about words

when I am writing novels and blog posts and interviews and articles, or when I am reading books or scrolling through news online or clicking the click-bait-y headlines or the crappy comments (no matter how much I tell myself NEVER to do that) or perusing recipes and shopping catalogs and Facebook posts and Tweets and the titles of Instagram pictures and the back of the cereal box.

My own thoughts are a stream of endless words,

a tumbling tangled mix of dialogue snippets and To-Do lists and what I'm making for dinner and worries over my kids away at colleges on opposite ends of the country, and never mind the latest toxic stew of political speeches which sends me off on a hopeless tangent of despair for humanity,

and sometimes I want all the words to stop

so I can feel silence and just Be for a moment


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Word Games (Stephanie Kuehnert)

Words. They are definitely the seeds that my stories blossom from.

In my undergrad and grad workshops at Columbia College Chicago, we did a lot of generative activities. In practically every class we did an activity called "One Word" which is exactly what it sounds like. We went around person by person giving the word that came to mind. After each person spoke, we'd take a second to see what the word gave us to see. One, or more often for me, several of these words would act like little seedlings. Plant an image here. A character detail there. A phrase. An action.

BALLADS OF SUBURBIA and I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE were both born of this fertile ground. A version of BALLADS started in my very first undergrad class. "Prince" was one of the words that fed my early draft--a line that is long since cut, but was important to get me going all the same. If you've read the first chapter of IWBYJR, you won't be surprised that "condom" was one of the words that seeded the idea for chapter one--though it wasn't actually the first bit of the book that I wrote. That was actually one of Louisa's stories and the world that sparked it is lost to time. I wish I had more of my old notebooks so I could tell you which words brought about which scenes from my two novels. 

My friend Jenny and I brought these word games into our writing practice for years after grad school and we actually recorded a session recently for the "Creative Prompts" that I write for Rookie magazine.

Here is our video. Feel free to play along and give your own words or see what stories you might creatte from ours!

Creative Prompt: Pick a Word – ROOKIE from Rookie on Vimeo.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Horror - The word that (literally) scares people away

I long debated what word to cover during this month's "favorite words" topic. I went through the usual suspects, words I tend to overuse and have to correct myself on, words that I wish I had an opportunity to use that just hasn't come up. The word I came to realize was my favorite word, the one nearest and dearest to me, was actually the one that scares people away. 

Inevitably, the conversation goes something like this:

"I'm a writer, are you a writer?"

Me: "Oh, yes! It's so great to meet you!"

"So what do you write?"


*silence* "Sorry?"

"I write horror? Pretty sure I said horror..."

"Oh. Well, I can't do horror. I'm too scared. I could never read your work."

Horror. That's my word. If you know me, talk to me more than five seconds, that's the word that inevitably will fall out of my mouth. Each time, I get the same response (unless the other writer likes or is considering writing some vein of horror). Yeah, no really, I pretty much write only horror for all ages. It might have science fiction or fantasy or supernatural elements, but yes, always.

Here's the thing. I am probably as big, if not a bigger chicken, than you. 

That's right. 

For example, I can't stand visceral gore, creepy children, zombies or anything to do with organs, children getting hurt in any way, surgery, hospitals, demons, the list goes on. And by can't stand, I mean I will stay awake all night with the lights on because I can't get the images out of my head. Ninety percent of horror films scare me. No, really. 

So when I say my word is horror, I come to it with knowing that at one time I was too scared to write it. I thought, I love going to horror movies and reading Stephen King, but could I do it too? I tried it out for one class in college and my teacher thought I should push it farther. I was scared to. I froze up. I didn't want to write horror! That was for "CREEPY PEOPLE," or so I thought at the time. After much coaxing, I tried a little more. I made my scares bigger, my reactions larger. I wrote about the stuff that scared me and a light bulb went off.

I could combat my own fears by writing about them.

I've grown a lot since the first feeble steps into this genre. My latest book is all about anxiety, panic attacks, and how to deal with your body's inability to cope when the world may or may not actually be crumbling all around you. You can't shut it off, you can't stop panic attacks from happening - you can only learn the triggers and try to avoid provoking the sleeping dragon. Horror gave voice to my reality, to my worst fears, and allowed me to conquer them on the page.

Now I have come to realize happily that my word is definitely "horror." No matter how many funny looks I get, it's a genre I plan on sticking with for a long time. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

In defense of prescriptivism

by Tracy Barrett

Grammarians fall into two camps: prescriptivists, who say that there are grammar rules to tell people how to use language; and descriptivists, who take the point of view that when they say, for example, “The verb ‘to lay’ takes a direct object, as in ‘to lay an egg,’ while ‘to lie’ means to recline, as in ‘to lie down,’” they aren’t dictating usage, but merely stating how a reasonably well-educated person speaks. If usage changes, the “rule” also changes, or it disappears.

I lean toward descriptivism in grammar—a lot of the “rules” were imposed by grammarians to make English look more like Latin, and they make no sense with a Germanic language. But I’m more of a prescriptivist when it comes to vocabulary.

Every time one word is confused with another, we lose something. There’s a difference between “uninterested” (couldn’t care less) and “disinterested” (has no stake in an outcome). If people use “disinterested” when they mean “uninterested,” how can we express “A scientist should be disinterested in the result of her experiment”? Someone who doesn’t know the difference between the two words might think that this means that the scientist shouldn't care about what she’s working on. She might care deeply, but she should remain neutral. You’re not advocating boredom in the lab.

We need both “systemic” and “systematic,” “torturous” and “tortuous,” “throw down the gauntlet” and “run the gantlet,” “consist of” and “comprise.” I stand on the ramparts to defend these words! Who’s with me?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

I Know Your Book Is Shortlisted For A Prize, But... (Sydney Salter)

My internal dialogue as I read some of this past year's buzziest books (written for grownups):

Encountering yet another obscure word.

--Dipsomaniac? Okay, I know Faulkner was an alcoholic, but did he have this other condition too?

Sets novel down to look up word on phone's dictionary app. Checks email quickly. Might be important.  Nope. Junk. What was that word again? Dipsomaniac. 

--Oh, it means alcoholic. Why couldn't the author just use the word alcoholic?

Repeat. Again. Again. Even in the chapters from the under-educated teen character's perspective. 

I've read hundreds of pages of gorgeous writing over the past few months, yet a lot of these books left me feeling emotionally disconnected. Maybe because I had to set down the book to look up yet another word, even though I have developed a fairly extensive vocabulary; like, I'm pretty sure I'd kick posterior on the SAT at this point in life.

Many of these titles were short-listed for the big literary awards, leaving me perplexed. Yeah, these authors packed their stories with resplendent sentences, yet, to me it seemed to come at the cost of authentic voices and characterization. The novels read like mannequins in a department store: gorgeously dressed, yet lifeless. 
I don't worry about the vocabulary I use in my writing--I strive to stay authentic to my characters--and I despise those grade-related word lists. 

Reading is how we all grow our vocabularies. 

But word choice should never come at the cost of characterization! I believe that creating an authentic voice and character perspective is more important than showing the reader all the obscure words I've learned over my lifetime. Look at me! I'm a smarty! Teenage readers aren't impressed with show-offs, forcing those of us who write in the genre to work hard to portray human truths, no matter the genre. 

I love that aspect of writing for young adults, and I think that's a lesson we YA writers could teach to many authors working in the literary genre.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

School House Rock Rocked the Words! By Kimberly Sabatini

I've had some pretty amazing english teachers over the years and it's not that I don't love and appreciate them, but one of my most influential educators, when it came to words, showed up to my house every Saturday morning. 

The School House Rock educational ear worms were the best! And obviously they worked because I can still sing most of these diddies today. 

If you haven't had the pleasure or your just feeling nostalgic...








Yeah--that last one was my favorite LOL!

Did you grow up with School House Rock? I loved all of them Grammar, History, Science--but we ARE talking about words today, so which one was your favorite? Can you still sing them? Never saw School House Rock???? Please tell me it isn't true!

Monday, March 7, 2016

My Favorite--And Least Favorite--Publishing Words and Phrases (Joy Preble)

Dead, stuffed deer in rowboat.**
Publishing is filled with catch phrases, a new language you learn as you go along. Your publicist may talk about consumer-facing ads versus trade-facing versus media-facing. Your editor says she’s crazy busy in the ‘run up’ to a trade show. At first you just nod your head and pretend. Then you figure it out.

Some of my least favorite publishing phrases include the long list of euphemisms for “Sorry. I don’t want to represent you/acquire your book/give you whatever it is you’ve just politely asked for.”

These include such gems as:

“I wish I had better news.”
(Yeah, me too.)

“This is not a good fit for our list.”
(And why? C’mon. Tell me why.)

“I just wasn’t as immersed as I want to be.”
(So bored, then? Okay. I actually get this one. Some books don’t immerse me, either. But if you could tell me why…)

“Despite our best efforts…”
(So that means you didn’t pitch me for that event, right?)

“I’m afraid I don’t think I’ll be able to take this on.”
(All those qualifiers don’t make me feel any better.)

I could go on, but you get the picture, right?

But then there are the wonderful words!

Emails from your editor or agent or publicist with the heading GOOD NEWS!

Follow up emails that say, “No really! It’s amazing news and here’s why!”

Phone calls from your agent that begin, “So how are you? How’s the dog?” Because she never calls you just to chat. That’s not how it works. And if it’s bad news, she’d have used one of the above in an email. So this generic chit chat means she’s about to tell you SOMETHING REALLY AWESOME!

Reviews from Kirkus that use words like “Satisfying” “Fun” “Thrilling” or anything that basically doesn’t imply that you suck. If there’s a sentence you can pull and use without ellipses, all the better!

(This one is always good.)

What are your favorite and least favorite words and phrases?

**Please note that the picture of stuffed Bambi in a rowboat has nothing to do with this post, but if you can mentally create a metaphor for its inclusion then, "Congratulations!" If not, "Despite my best efforts, I wish I had better news."

Friday, March 4, 2016

Rainbows and Unicorns, Oh My! (Bill Cameron)

Greetings! New guy here. My name is Bill, and I write stuff. (That's me to the right: Bear Head Man). I’d like to open by thanking Patty and Holly for inviting me to join the team here at YA Outside the Lines. It’s an honor and a privilege to be included in such an amazing group.

And such a fun topic to start with! Words. Favorite words. Scary words. Words that make me cringe and words that make me grin. Mostly I love words, any words. They are our tools, after all, the foundation of our craft as writers.

But, for me, there’s one in particular that falls in the cringe category—and, no, it’s not “moist.” My cringing is is probably a tad ironic, since this word is always used as a term of unrestrained support for a book or story. It’s a word that means a book is a must-read, a book that will grip you and won’t let go unti you’ve turned the last page—if then. It’s—


I know, I know. Author sacrilege! But in my ear, it’s clunky and unlovely and feels oh so forced. And yet, I know I should love this word. Heck, if a reader described one of my books thusly, I’d absolutely shut my yap and be thrilled. But deep inside—and I can’t help this—I confess I’d wish they put it another way.

I suspect it’s one of those words that came about because it takes up a lot less space than “You won’t be able to put this book down!” If I’m a graphic designer tasked with placing a blurb on some cover art, unputdownable is assuredly easier to fit than an elegantly worded declaration full of dependent clauses and requiring multiple line breaks. I get it, I get it. Still.

Now, if we’re talking about words I like, well, you’re in for a long, long list. My gift to you in this, my inaugural post at YAOTL, is to not share them all. But there are a few honorable mentions, words I make a point of sneaking into almost every novel or story I write.

The first is more phrase than word, but I think it counts. Starting with my second book, “rainbows and unicorns” makes a regular appearance in my work—not an easy task when you write gritty, realist crime fiction. It started as a joke from my editor at the time, Alison Dasho. “I'd like to see you fit rainbows and unicorns into this noir procedural.”

Gauntlet thrown.

When I was writing about a grizzled cop in his 50s, finding an appropriate spot for rainbows and unicorns was a genuine challenge. But it didn’t get any easier when I turned my attention to young adult. Joey Getchie, 16-year-old orphan and foster kid, isn’t the kind of fellow who frolicks through sun-dappled meadows made fresh by a cleansing rain. But I’m not one to wilt in the face of a charging unicorn, so even Joey has a run-in with a rainbow and hornéd equine or two.

Ultimately, the best writing is about the finding the right words for the situation at hand. In that way, unputdownable may not be my first choice, but it could still be the best choice. Rainbows and unicorns are fun, but I would never force them into a story if they simply didn’t make sense. Another favorite word of mine, fulvous, didn’t make it into Property of the State because the word didn’t work with the voice of my narrator. Joey Getchie would have given me the laser-powered side-eye if I tried to sneak fulvous into his vocabulary.

What’s great is the wealth of choice we have at our disposal as writers. Can’t abide by the word moist? Don’t let that dampen your spirits. The magic of language is it’s just dripping with alternatives. We just need to find the words that wet our particular whistle.

Thursday, March 3, 2016


Maybe it's because words are tools of the trade--because words are so special, so important to us...but review season can certainly be a tough one. As much as we don't want to admit it, a harsh review can rattle us down to our toes, and a positive review can make us breathe a sigh or relief or get a glow or dance around the kitchen. A few positive words can help us power happily through the rough draft of a WIP.

I recently received this utterly lovely review from Kirkus...the very first trade review to come in for SPARK (coming out from HarperTeen this May) and the best review I've ever received from Kirkus:

Quin hopes her drama-class senior project can save a local theater and change the course of history. "At Verona High, drama is for the shy." Quin and her classmates in Advanced Drama are "senior nobodies" who would prefer to blend into the scenery. But their teacher (who happens to be Quin's mom) wants to use their senior project to save the Avery, a local theater in their small town that was shuttered 70 years ago after a pair of star-crossed lovers, Emma and Nick, died on its stage. Reluctantly, the class begins to work on the project—a production of Anything Goes—with Quin as the director. At the same time, Quin learns that the Avery is somehow beginning to revive itself. She also discovers that her classmates Cass and Dylan are reliving the doomed romance of Emma and Nick. In Quin, Schindler has crafted a quick-witted, white protagonist who draws readers into her search for answers about her family's past as well as the Avery's. Scenes set in the past are rich with authentic voices and period detail, and Schindler's crisp prose flows easily between the past and the present. Even when it seems impossible for the show to go on, Schindler's imaginative story will have readers rooting for Quin and her classmates to "break a leg." A tale of love, family, and friendship, tailor-made for readers who believe in the mystery and magic of the theater.