Monday, January 19, 2015

Those Words

Every writer has those words they rely on that really don't add anything to their manuscript. For me, I use "just" way too often. It's just that... No I mean... What does it mean when one does this? Aside from needing a good dose of copy editing, I think it shows where a writer's head is when enveloped in story. 

I have found that when I use the word "just" repeatedly when it's not necessary, that I am doubting my ability at that point in the story. Perhaps I don't feel thoroughly in the story, or I'm not feeling the character or scene at the time, so subconsciously I begin to operate on a tide of uncertainty and begin using passive language. By passive language I mean that I start to write with a tone of hesitation and I need to take a step back and ask myself if I am staying true to the story.

One thing I learned about myself in graduate school is that I need to stop and gauge where my head space is as I work on a story. If I don't do that then I tend to write scenes that stall the action, and get bogged down in capturing details that can easily be left to the reader's imagination. I don't often catch myself doing these things, but when I read through, those points tend to have a lot more passive language than when I'm on course to make things happen.

When I use active language my character is doing something, but when my voice becomes passive, I'm not making anything happen. That's not to say it is inherently bad, but when I'm trying to move a plot along, or get through a twist, I want my characters to be sure of what they are doing. 

In an effort to control the amount of times I use "just" I do a word search and MS WORD finds and highlights all of them. I read through the line it appears and ask myself whether it helps with the tone of the moment in the story (because sometimes you want your character to be a little passive). If it doesn't serve a purpose I remove it. I have yet to regret removing them.
Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. – Mark Twain
When I come across a lot of passive language in my writing, I tend to get down on myself and feel like I'm being a lazy writer. But after having done this word purging exercise a lot of times, I realize that it doesn't indicate laziness, but rather avoidance. I noticed that I shy away from active language and action when I feel intimidated by what's going on in my story. For example, in one of my current works in progress a girl's face is mangled in a roller coaster. The scene in which she sees her face for the first time post-accident was so passive that I wanted to shake myself after reviewing it. I was going for shock, awe, fear and wonder at what she saw. Instead, it sounded like she kind of didn't believe what happened. It was frustrating and I re-wrote the scene (I'm on version four so far). I forced myself to take it up a notch wherever I thought it was weighed down. But what was really happening was me tapping into my own physical insecurities. It took me back to those times when I look in the mirror and all I see are my flaws and imperfections. I was avoiding the true feelings I experience at those times because they make me feel weak and shallow and I don't like to think of myself as being like that.

In order to make the scene as powerful as it deserves to be, I had to acknowledge that I can be shallow. I had to accept that I worry about my appearance and wish I looked this way or that to fit the beauty ideals I buy into. I had to assure myself that those are normal feelings that everyone feels. I had to allow myself to work through them as though I was fourteen and had just been deformed in an instant. When I allowed myself to really go there, I didn't have a place for the passiveness that had slowed the flow before. It aroused deeper feelings that when embraced, led me to write the scene with emotion and sincerity. I was proud of what came out, even as I know it still needs work.

As with anything, there is a place for passive language and repetition. The word "just" isn't taboo or illegal. But, I know that when it comes to that word, it is a mask for something more, something that is preventing me from making my writing stronger. When I see that, I have to step back, reassess and dive back in with honesty and write the words that are truly supposed to be there.

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