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Writer's intuition - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Writer's intuition
Over at fanficrants, I've gotten into the "Use 'said'"/"Never use 'said'" business again. I've had the adverb fight. I generally agree with Stephen King that thesauruses (properly thesauri, but who bothers, right?) are almost as creepy as Cliff's Notes ("Any word you have to look up in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule," King wrote in "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully... in Ten Minutes"). In general, I'm in favor of "said," avoid adverbs (though not with any particular animosity), and believe in using the vocabulary that I've mastered and am comfortable with rather than using ten dollar words that I may know but have never used in conversation before.

That said, my characters are known to "whisper" and "intimate" and "shout" and do any number of tricks with their dialogue. Often, they do so adverbially. And I've made use of the thesaurus feature at dictionary.com within the last two weeks in the course of writing scenes (looking for a word with a hard "c" that meant something like "perfume"... yeah, yeah, sue me; "cologne" was on the tip of my tongue, but it just wasn't getting there... which is the perfect use of a thesaurus). While I'm at it, I'm generally in favor of having a strong vocabulary and using standard forms of words, but I'm delighted to create new words or use suffixes and prefixes to change meanings with great abandon. (Check out the section on "Scrabble" in this article by Orson Scott Card--it's the third section of the essay--for the exact reason computerized word games frustrate me and the reason I find English fun to play with.)

If I can't even follow rules I subscribe to--and I insist that they're rules that should be learned--then... er... what's wrong with this picture?

I know that some folks are likely to say, "It's because the rules are just suggestions! Just matters of taste! Just, you know, nothing binding." And I wince and agree... that's true for experienced writers who know what the rules are for and what breaking them will achieve.

More to the point, it's true for writers who were born with or have developed good writer's intuition. Being born with it is rare. I've always been considered reasonably adept with words, but trust me, no one who looks at my third grade essay about my grandmother's prize-winning housecat, Patches, is going to say, "Boy, this girl was destined for greatness!" (even if it did win a blue ribbon at the county fair). After a lot of years and a lot of practice, you start to get an ear for it when the prose goes off-key--some inner Randy Jackson offers the ever-useful input, "You're sounding a little pitchy up there, dawg."

I think that, to the vast majority of the viewers of American Idol, this advice really does sound useless. But the singers, who have been doing this their whole lives, frown and nod. You can see the difference between the serious contestants and the wild-eyed fame-seekers in the "Gong Show portion of American Idol" (another article from the venerable Mr. Card refers to the opening episodes as such)--the serious singers, while being confident enough to say, "Simon, you just don't like the song," understand perfectly and don't react defensively to Jackson's oft-repeated "pitchy" phrase, even though it seems much more obscure and picayune.

Why? Intuition. The audience listening may have enjoyed it, but not as much as they otherwise would have. The singer has gotten through the performance and has heard something off key, just slightly, and "pitchy" works fine to describe it. There's not a rule out there to teach non-pitchy-ness; it's just a question of using your ears and your judgment. That ability comes with experience and practice. Until then, you use a tuning fork or a piano or whatever is necessary. You learn the intervals, you sing your scales. La-la-la and all that.

Writing is no different. You learn the rules because you have to know what they do, but in the end, all you can depend on is your own ear.

I know that "said" is an invisible word and should be the default verb for dialogue tags. But you know what? It stops being invisible in a passage like this:

"I love you," John said. "You know that, don't you?"

"Yes," Mary said. "Of course I do."

"But I have to leave," he said.

"I don't believe that," she said.

"It's true!" he said.

And so on. More than a few saids in close proximity, and the Invisibility Cloak starts to be too small for them. (This is a subset of parallel structure, of course.)

Of course, the opposite problem is well documented. No one in his or her right mind would want to read the following:

"I love you," John whispered passionately. "You know that, don't you?"

"Yes," Mary breathed. "Of course I do."

"But I have to leave," he moaned.

"I don't believe that," she insisted.

"It's true!" he ejaculated.

(Of course, in that particular scene, the whole meaning could be changed by capitalizing the "he" in the last sentence, which ought to be an automatic clue that the dialogue tags are off.)

So if both opposite versions are equally horrible, how do you approach the scene?

Intuition. Know your own voice, know how the words feel on the paper and what you want the texture of the prose to be. Presuming I had any interest in writing the above scene, my main inclination would be to keep "whispered passionately" despite the fact that it's (a) a said-replacement and (b) an adverbially modified said replacement. Why? Because it focuses John for me and anchors the scene. Then I'd give Mary an action before she said, "Yes. Of course I do." Why? Dunno. Just feels like Mary needs to disengage from the conversation for it to happen after John whispers passionately. She is, after all, arguing with him. I think she should take a few steps toward that baby grand, and possibly cross her arms around her waist. No, not both. Too twitchy. Or pitchy, whatever. She just walks.

After that, I'd pitch the tags altogether until the conversation was over and one or the other of them took a major action. A different writer might make a different call and it wouldn't be wrong, but I'm not a different writer.

As with food, I think--moral or ritual issues notwithstanding--that most things are all right in moderation. You wouldn't want to tag every single bit of dialogue with "said" no matter how acceptable a word it is, nor would you want to introduce every line of dialogue with an action (your characters will start to look really fidgety). You don't want five adverbs in a row, including odd ones like "bracingly," even if you do happen to be J.K. Rowling. But here and there...

Shrug. If you've mastered the concept of using adverbs only in extreme circumstances, then you know how jarring they can be. Use them if they feel right.

What about Mr. King's earlier reported comment about thesauri, that "Any word you have to look up in a thesaurus is the wrong word"? And that "there are no exceptions to this rule"?

Well, there is an exception--if you know a word and it's caught up in your brain and you know that it's the exact word you want but you can't get to it, then go ahead. Open the thesaurus. Check a close synonym, then slap your forehead and say, "AAAGH. Of course. That's what I meant." They're also useful for leisure reading, if you happen to be a word geek, though nowhere near as much fun as a good dictionary with decent etymological notes. Use any means necessary to add words to your personal stash. If you take them, it doesn't mean there are fewer left for other people, so don't be shy. Be a glutton.

But don't use the thesaurus to write. Mr. King is right about that, and the reason is exactly what I've been talking about: writer's intuition.

You have to be able to feel the language on the page, to know where it's going and what its melody is. It has to be something that's playing in your head. If you don't already know a word and feel comfortable using it, the chances of it being part of a natural line of prose that you write are pretty slim. Increasing your vocabulary can be an important part of writing, just like jumping rope can be an an important part of boxing... but you don't bring the jumprope into the ring.

That's all.
27 comments or Leave a comment
marycontraria From: marycontraria Date: February 18th, 2005 01:42 am (UTC) (Link)
"Your essays are so good," Leith said admiringly. "I really agree with pretty much everything you pontificated on talked about in this one." ... :p
ashavah From: ashavah Date: February 18th, 2005 01:43 am (UTC) (Link)
Thank you, Fern. This is an awesome post which gets right to the heart of one of the most important aspects of writing: intuition.
From: anatomiste Date: February 18th, 2005 01:47 am (UTC) (Link)
If I can't even follow rules I subscribe to--and I insist that they're rules that should be learned--then... er... what's wrong with this picture?

I know that some folks are likely to say, "It's because the rules are just suggestions! Just matters of taste! Just, you know, nothing binding." And I wince and agree... that's true for experienced writers who know what the rules are for and what breaking them will achieve.

More to the point, it's true for writers who were born with or have developed good writer's intuition.

Long quote, but I agree with you so much I had to say it again. ;) This is something more people need to learn, and if I wind up teaching English, at any level, I'm going to emphasize the heck out of it. The thing is, the intuition that all good writers have isn't something you're simply born with. Some people are naturally more talented than others; some have seemingly without conscious striving achieved ability (I like to think I'm in this category, from having read so much as a child); but it is certainly possible to learn to write well up to a point, and it is always possible for naturally good writers to improve. (Or we hope there is--otherwise there'd be no point in all these writing workshops!) And the way to improve is not to wish very hard for that intuition--it's to simulate what the intuition does in the writer's unconscious mind, which is provide structure and pattern and, well, grammar to play around with.

That's why students have to learn and practice all those nitpicky rules--from identifying and using subjects and predicates to restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Even the fake sort of rule from the old Latin grammarians, like split infinitives and dangling prepositions, are important at this stage. Everything you learn adds to your understanding of the English language. And the more fully you understand how the language is put together, the better you can run it.

Going back to your example, how many good writers actually follow any sort of rule or plan for using said? Yet they don't wind up stagnant with repetition or over-ornate with synonyms. That's because on some level--the intuition you were talking about--they understand how the language works, thoroughly enough to use it well.
From: anatomiste Date: February 18th, 2005 01:49 am (UTC) (Link)
And I meant to put in somewhere the one sentence I'll be sure to repeat to those hypothetical students of mine: "You can't surpass the rules until you've mastered them."
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: February 18th, 2005 08:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
"You can't surpass the rules until you've mastered them."

True in both writing and music. I've heard it as, "You have to know the rules before you can break them." Rules provide a structure upon which art is built, and one has to know how breaking the rule will affect the art if one is to communicate well through that art.

Good writing flows as beautifully as any symphony, and every symphony must follow its own rules if it is to make sense.
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: February 18th, 2005 01:58 am (UTC) (Link)
It was funny to read your opening paragraph, because only 20 minutes ago, I opened my thesaurus for the first time in years. I was editing my LJ layout and wanted to replace "userinfo" with a word that begins with P. It's random, I know, but for that sort of thing, a thesaurus is great.

As for the rules, I feel if you don't know them, then you don't know when to ignore them. If I'm working on a book and a character's grammar is wrong, but the dialogue sounds right, I won't change it. But if it sounds awkward, I will change it. It's only possible for me to make the distinction if I know the rules. Otherwise it just sounds off and I don't know why, which distracts from the story.

I got a kick out of King's article. Thanks for posting the link.
trinity_clare From: trinity_clare Date: February 18th, 2005 02:00 am (UTC) (Link)
Have you read On Writing? Stephen King took that article and turned it into a book. It's a pretty good one, too, although I disagree with him on certain points. The same points as yours, mostly.

Usually with dialogue, I leave out all the tags on the first run-through, then I put them all in the second time, then I take about half of them out the third time.

And that is totally the way I would play Scrabble. It's already the way we play trivia games in the family. The whole game is about the cards, right? So forget the game board. We take turns reading each other the questions, and you get points for getting it right. Bonus points if the general consensus thinks it's a hard question.

Did you know that the livejournal spellchecker doesn't think "dialogue" is a word? It wants me to say "dialog". I've never seen that before. It doesn't think "livejournal" is a word either. Tee hee.
melyanna From: melyanna Date: February 18th, 2005 02:12 am (UTC) (Link)
Have you read On Writing? Stephen King took that article and turned it into a book. It's a pretty good one, too, although I disagree with him on certain points. The same points as yours, mostly.

Having at least known of Fern in a couple fandoms now for a few years now, I can tell you that she swears by King. ;) You can probably hunt around through her old entries and quite a few about On Writing.
trinity_clare From: trinity_clare Date: February 18th, 2005 02:14 am (UTC) (Link)
I got it for Christmas. It's now my Bible.
mamadeb From: mamadeb Date: February 18th, 2005 02:11 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm one of those dreadful people who avoids speech attributes whenever possible - I used the word "said" recently and it hurt, but it was necessary. So I have rather twitchy and busy characters or long spates of dialogue or the thoughts of the viewpoint character, who doesn't change.

So I read your response to the rant with interest. :)

I'm also not big with the adverbs, although I *do* use them if I can't see any graceful way around it.
millefiori From: millefiori Date: February 18th, 2005 02:11 am (UTC) (Link)
This is a great essay! I think writers often (maybe too often) favor the rules and advice of experts over their own intuition. Which isn't to say that the experts are wrong -- I think it's important to understand the rules of spelling and grammar and what good writers have to say about good writing. But I also think every writer has to find their own voice and style, and part of that is learning to trust that intuition, and believe it when they read a bit of their own writing and think, "That's good!" regardless of whether or not it violates a given rule.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 18th, 2005 03:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah--but they can't learn to trust their intuition until they've fully mastered the rules. You can opt to do a back flip instead of a triple Salchow in competition, but you'd best know how to balance on ice skates before trying either.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: February 18th, 2005 02:39 am (UTC) (Link)
My rule is that if I have to look up what it means after I've found it in a thesaurus then it's pretentious and probably only fit for certain characters.
From: arclevel Date: February 18th, 2005 02:56 am (UTC) (Link)
I like adverbs and am aware that I tend to use them too often. Mostly this is because I see the scene playing out a certain way in my mind and am trying to capture the whole feel on the page. If I were better, then yes, I'd be able to do this with far fewer adverbs, but, alas, I'm not.

I also tend to use a thesaurus when I have a word on the tip of my tongue, but unfortunately it's usually either a phrase I'm after or else simply nonexistant except in my mind; either way, it fails to be in my thesaurus. The other main reason I tend to use a thesaurus when I write (fiction and non) is that I'll look over what I've written and discover that I've used the same word six times in three sentences. I do certainly agree that a thesaurus should *not* be a source of new and exciting words to be used immediately in writing.
humantales From: humantales Date: February 18th, 2005 04:04 am (UTC) (Link)
I was happy to see this essay. I'm comparatively new to fanfiction and pretty new to finishing stories (I'm really good at starting them). After reading about using "said" instead of all the wonderful synonyms and adverbs, I've started doing so; however, there are times when I have to use the alternate words/phrases. Reading your essay tells me why.

Well, there is an exception--if you know a word and it's caught up in your brain and you know that it's the exact word you want but you can't get to it, then go ahead.
Exactly, although then I get lost following the words.
swatkat24 From: swatkat24 Date: February 18th, 2005 04:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah, excellent essay, as usual. *g* Bending rules are good, but only when you (and that's a general you) *know* what the rules actually are, and when bending is acceptable, and when it makes you look ridiculous. "I don't need no stinkin' rules" may sound to cool (to some people), but it makes you look plain stupid.

persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: February 18th, 2005 05:20 am (UTC) (Link)
I confess to wanting to cheer for #7 and #8. The idea that something cannot be simultaneously fun and serious (and the weird corrollary and sometimes alternative that if it's miserable it's automatically serious -- although I think it doesn't become non-serious in this perspective if someone enjoys wallowing in it) drives me nuts, and people who seem to be constantly miserable over writing -- especially when they're writing as a hobby -- make me nervous.
zoepaleologa From: zoepaleologa Date: February 18th, 2005 10:16 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm generally in the said, asked, no adverb camp. I once got in a huge row on a community by innocently stating that. Someone weighed in with "I use adverbs" thundering, and off we went into the Land of Shouting Matches.

But the real reason for posting is this. I've not been long doing any creative writing - I wrote my first fanfiction in September 2003. I sent it for beta reading, and my beta politely suggested that it was pretty boring, because "it would be better if there were adverbs around the speech, for example, "I hated my bloody father," Severus said sullenly" (I'd like to state for the record, by the way, that's NOT a quote from my stuff). And I was gobsmacked.

Generally, I'd argue that the adverbial type dialogue used by Rowling is actually suitable given that her books, while loved by adults (after all, here we all are) are clearly slanted to a chilish audience. I think children find the clear pointer to tone given by the adverb easier to imagine. Adults can tell by the context and content of the dialogue how the speaker said it.

It's funny how emotive folks get over this issue, though.

maeglinyedi From: maeglinyedi Date: February 18th, 2005 03:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Great essay! I agree with you on this. Learning the basic rules of writing is important. But the most important rule of them all is perhaps that no rule should be followed off a cliff. You do have to understand the rules before you can take them and play around with them.

Only using said with no action tags at all for variety makes a very jarring story. Never using said but only every other verb you can possibly find makes an equally jarring story. It's finding the balance, and understanding that action tags are your friend, in some dialogue no tags are required at all, and said is a great verb to use in dialogue tags but it's all right to have a character whisper on occassion, too.
lady_songsmith From: lady_songsmith Date: February 19th, 2005 02:16 am (UTC) (Link)
Great essay! I agree with you on the thesauri; I have gotten into arguments before about same. Once I was at a workshop and we were asked to name something we kept at-hand when we wrote. I got scolded for saying, "A thesaurus." But I find I suffer from tip-of-the-tongue syndrome frequently. Also wrong connotation syndrome; I'm very fussy about connotation. I want an every-word-in-the-universe thesaurus, though. *pouts*

Now, what I have trouble with is managing speech in crowded scenes. If, for instance, we're in the Gryffindor common room and the Trio, Ginny, and the Quidditch Team are chatting... Somehow the speaker needs to be identified, and speech pattern alone won't always do it, so I find myself struggling though said's too big for their Invisibility Cloak. (Love that metaphor!) Anyone got advice?
goldennotblonde From: goldennotblonde Date: February 19th, 2005 03:48 am (UTC) (Link)
How do I say this without sounding pretentious... no can do. Phoey. I wrote a scene for an RR once with a similar scenario that I was rather pleased with. I think the identification was done mostly with actions.

In the Gryffindor common room, the others were becoming worried. Colin fretted over his absent camera, concerned for its welfare.

"Do you think she's actually going to do it?" he asked.

"Dunno," Dean answered, leaning back against the sofa and stretching. "She's smart, and she's got that cloak of Harry's - can't be too difficult."

"I suppose..." he said. "I just hope she doesn't press any of the wrong buttons. That cloak won't help her if the flash goes off."

Ron waved an unsteady hand. "She's Muggleborn. Surely she knows how to operate that camera of yours. How complicated can it be?"

Colin bit his lip and looked down.

"What?" Ron asked warily. Even in his drunken state, he knew something was wrong. "Creevy, what did you do?"

Colin flushed, the tops of his ears turning a deep red. Ginny stared at him.

"You changed it, didn't you?" she said, disgust and a hint of wry amusement colouring her tone.

Colin muttered something almost unintelligible, but it sounded like, "Just a few things."

... and the rest of the scene is really way too long for a comment, even a pretentious one. A few other characters speak, but their presence is implied by the earlier context of the story - a House party in the common room.
goldennotblonde From: goldennotblonde Date: February 19th, 2005 03:53 am (UTC) (Link)
I think the identification was done mostly with actions.

Actually... I don't have a clue what I did. *frustrated*
lady_songsmith From: lady_songsmith Date: February 19th, 2005 04:11 am (UTC) (Link)
Not pretentious. That scene plays really well, too. And now I want to read the rest, which is probably the only definitive measure of quality writing. =)
goldennotblonde From: goldennotblonde Date: February 19th, 2005 04:53 am (UTC) (Link)
Hehe, thanks.

The scene is from a continuing RR that's been going on for quite a while, but I'd say it's close to finishing. *resists urge to pimp RR, fails* The overall quality is (imho) a lot better than some round robins I've seen because we have the option to go back and fix problems. We're not just playing a casual party game, we're making a story.

I guess I'm just really proud of the collaborative work we've come up with and want to share the love. Or something like that.

If you ever find that "every-word-in-the-universe thesaurus," let me know, yah? I'm craving one too.
ellid From: ellid Date: February 19th, 2005 03:43 am (UTC) (Link)
I tend to avoid adverbs if at all possible. An editor at the New Yorker once swore he found *eleven* modifying the word "said" - "he said morosely, violent, eloquently...." - and gave up on the story before he reached the last one. I've never seen anything in print that came close, including Eye of Argon.

As for dialogue...Mark Twain had some brilliant comments in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Mistakes" (which, if you haven't read it, o aspiring writer, DO SO IMMEDIATELY).
(Deleted comment)
From: episkopos Date: February 19th, 2005 02:05 pm (UTC) (Link)

*sponsors this*

I never thought I would agree with King on anything, but he's right, for once - there's nothing so lamentable as a forced style and nothing so forced as absurdly inflated vocabulary.

I still wouldn't discourage people from indulging in it though, just because I need something to hold up as worse writing than my own.

Anyway, I salute you, and bid you greetings while I'm at it.
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