Sunday, October 02, 2005

Ctrl-F for Frustration, Part 1

Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.
--Theodore Dreiser
My least favorite part of manuscript revisions involves searching for what I call "tired words." All authors have them, little placeholders we toss in so we can hurry to the next sentence, the next thought. The character feels dismay? She sighs. Exasperation? She sighs. Uncertainty? She sighs, or perhaps shrugs.

Replacing tired words usually requires more than a synonym switch; often the best solution is to rewrite the sentence with a more vivid image. Specific actions reveal volumes about a character, and if your characters do nothing but sigh, shrug, smile, and occasionally clench a fist, they'll blend into a vague, vanilla-flavored mass, as indistinguishable from one another as ticketholders at a Donny & Marie concert.

The problems started when I did a "Find" (keyboard shortcut: Ctrl-F) on the word "could." I wanted to eliminate all instances of "She could feel" or "She could hear," etc. After all, if she could feel it, why not just write "She felt"? The fewer words, the better, right?*

I discovered that even though I'd only made the above mistake a handful of times, I used the word "could" a lot in my manuscript, sometimes several places on one page. I grew paranoid: was this an annoying literary tic or simply a verb tense? After all, the novel is written in past tense; I can't use the word "can" in place of "could."

Thus a word that usually flows along with its friends, not calling attention to itself, began to leap off the screen as if written in fuschia. My estimation of myself as a writer plummeted. Why do I use "could" so frequently? And what's with all these "the"'s and "a"'s? Isn't there a better word for "his"?

After several hours of this find-and-replace torture, I tried to write a new scene from scratch. Bad idea, because I was still wearing my "editor's hat." As each word appeared on the screen, it withered under scrutiny. English became a foreign language with an ever-dwindling lexicon. I could see the images in my mind but couldn't describe them without sounding like a third-grader's book report. Original thoughts seemed as elusive as something that's really elusive.


Stay tuned tomorrow to see how I solve this dilemma. I'm quite curious myself.

*Not always. Sometimes the rhythm of a sentence needs more words rather than fewer. Chopping sentences down to the bone might impart more meaning more efficiently, but readers don't just want information; we want the prose to sound nice inside our heads.


Me vote fur nicens sound prose.


Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 10/02/2005 7:18 PM

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Posted by: Blogger Rob S. at 10/03/2005 10:46 AM

In a different event in the search-and-replace follies, I was recently proofreading a novel and noticed that in the manuscript (but changed in the galleys ) the author had , instead of writing Professor Hannetaux every time he mentioned a character for this one scene, wrote Professor Honeydew. He must have forgotten to go back and changed it before sending it on. Gave me a good crackin'-up, it did.

Posted by: Blogger Rob S. at 10/03/2005 10:47 AM

Ah, the Ctrl-H is for Hell syndrome. I once did a find-and-replace on a character's name, changing it from Jim to William, because the book already had two major "J" characters. Only later did I realize I changed Padre Jimenez's name to Williamenez. D'oh!

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 10/07/2005 9:51 AM

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