table, teapot, plates, candle

Sip, Shuffle, and Grunt: Word Choice Dilemmas

The characters in my novels are a sociable lot. They often discuss things over meals or drinks. That gives them something to do besides talk and furnishes me (the Writer) with opportunities for actions to avoid the dreaded “talking heads.”

It also brings up a few minor conundrums that are perfect examples of Writer’s Brain at Work. As I create these scenes of conviviality, I often struggle with word choices. There aren’t enough useful words for certain actions, and a bewildering abundance for others. They have to be ordinary words, not flashy ones that would draw too much attention to minor actions.

Drinking, for example. The word used to describe taking in liquid has to fit the situation and the beverage. Whether it’s water, tea, coffee, beer, wine, or spirits, the choices are pretty much limited to the following: sip, drink, or gulp (including the variations involving “take,” as in: took a sip/drink/gulp). Context determines which word is most appropriate. Extremes are easier than ordinary situations. If someone is gulping whisky or vodka, there should be a reason. A character who has reached water after a thirsty slog through a desert isn’t likely to stop at sipping. I wish there was a verb other than “drink” for situations where “sip” is too prissy and “gulp” too vulgar. Synonyms such as “imbibe” or “quaff” are pretentious and awkward. Other words, such as slurp, swig, or guzzle, are wonderful but limited.

Then there’s the problem of how to convey something we all do while talking, a nonverbal sound that indicates mild disapproval of what has just been said. It’s sometimes rendered as “Hmph.” Verbs include the following: snort, grunt, or huff. Which to use depends on the character; for some, snorting or grunting is entirely appropriate, but I can’t bring myself to apply these words to characters who simply wouldn’t do that. “Huff” is pretty much the only choice for them, along with the aforementioned “Hmph,” or “made a disapproving sound,” which is clunky. There’s also “harrumph,” but it’s another one that’s okay for an older man but not for a nice young lady or mannerly middle-aged woman. “Sniff,” on the other hand, might just work. Whichever of them is used, I suspect it should not be treated as a dialogue tag, but as a discrete action.

Along with imbibing liquids and chewing food, characters make gestures while talking. Cutlery is useful in these situations; I’ve had characters make rhetorical gestures with forks, tap spoons to emphasize a point, or even hold knives as though wanting to use them as weapons. But sometimes a person just waves a hand, and that’s where I have a problem. Should they wave a hand, or his (her) hand? The latter, as in “Bob waved his hand,” to me always sounds like Bob has only one such appendage. Okay, so how about “Bob waved his right hand”? That implies that there’s a left to go with it, but also puts unnecessary emphasis on “right.” After going around this mulberry bush a few times, I settle on “a hand,” and berate myself for overthinking. Whose hand but his own would Bob wave, after all? (I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much mental energy I’ve expended on this non-problem.)

Characters move around all the time. There are many action verbs. But sometimes, the movement from point A to point B doesn’t call for a splashy verb, such as “leap,” “saunter,” or “shuffle.” Sometimes “walk” is just fine, as in “I walked to work in the rain.” Most days, an ordinary person wouldn’t amble, strut, or stride to work. Even the modest word that is the past tense of “go,” i.e., “went,” has a place. “On Thursday, Bob went to the hospital for surgery.” An expressive word is unnecessary here, unless the way Bob got to the hospital is the point of the sentence, not the fact that he’s going to have surgery. So why make the poor guy hobble, trot, or saunter? All right, that’s enough!

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

To sum up, whatever word is chosen for an action, it should suit the situation and the character. A modest, plain word may be le mot juste, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What about you, fellow writers? Do you ever dither over word choices? Do you ever overthink them?

Featured image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

Dreams in Fiction

Everyone dreams, although not everyone remembers doing so. Dreams, therefore, are a common experience, so it’s inevitable that they turn up in fiction. Fictional dreams are, in fact, a literary device. They have also drawn the ire of rule-makers. Writers know they should never end a story by revealing that it was all a dream, or begin one with the character waking up from one.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use dreams in fiction. They can be useful in many ways.

  • Prophetic dreams can provide foreshadowing
  • Dreams can add symbolic elements
  • Nightmares can provide a jolt of horror and an element of backstory
  • Dreams can show something about a character they aren’t aware of
  • A dream can be a vehicle for something unlikely in reality (along with hints that maybe it wasn’t really a dream)
  • Hallucinations and visions are somewhat like dreams (or nightmares)

Deep into Draft 2.5 of my work in progress, I decided to change a particular scene into a dream. That let me dodge some awkward logic problems going forward and introduce bizarre details that (I think) enhance the reading experience without straining the suspension of disbelief. This got me thinking about the use of dreams in fiction. Every one of my novels includes dreams, from brief mentions to full and detailed accounts.

Photo by Elina Krima on Pexels.com

Not to set down rules (Me? Rules? Never!), but it occurs to me there are a few things to keep in mind about using dreams as elements in fiction.

  • Less is more. Unless a story is about dreams or dreaming, it’s probably best not to go overboard with them.
  • Dreams aren’t logical. Fictional dreams that are too detailed and realistic are obviously contrived.
  • Feel free to make fictional dreams bizarre and illogical. In fact, drawing upon your own actual dreams may be a good idea.
  • Think oblique. Hint rather than state. Instead of having a character remember a dream from start to finish, drop in flash memories of the dream as they go through their day. Vivid vignettes instead of technicolour dramas.
cemetery, gravestones
Image from Pixabay

Fellow writers, do you put dreams into your fiction? Or maybe something you’ve written was inspired by a dream. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

Featured image from Pexels

What Readers Don’t Like, and Maybe Why

Readers of this blog must know by now that I can’t resist questioning anything that looks like a writing rule. I’ve read, and quibbled with, all kinds of “thou shalt nots,” from plot structure to specific words. The rationale is usually that these things alienate readers and make them stop reading a story, or prevent them from starting.

But here’s an idea: how about asking readers what they don’t like? That was the topic in a recent post on writer Pete Springer’s blog entitled My Pet Peeves as a Reader. All writers are also readers (or should be). A lot of writers read that post and commented. (By the way, the post also includes a lively discussion about sunflower seeds.)

As I read them, the top three peeves in Pete’s post and the comments are:

  • Rushed or otherwise unsatisfying endings
  • Wordiness, meaning either too much description or too many fancy/obscure words
  • Typos and errors

I wondered why these were the most often mentioned. Would this list be any different if the commenters weren’t mostly writers? I certainly don’t have any statistical data about this. The following are just my personal off-the-cuff thoughts.

  • Most people watch filmed stories of one sort or another; books have to compete with their instantaneous visual effects. Slowness is bad.
  • It takes more mental effort to read a book, i.e., to create a mind-movie, than to absorb a pre-made story, so books have to make that effort worthwhile with an ending that satisfies.
  • Writers spend a lot of time and effort finding typos and errors in their own works, so are likely to notice them in others’ writings. If there are enough of them to be irritating, that’s often a DNF.
  • So many books! Everyone’s TBR pile (physical or virtual) is bursting at the seams. This overabundance has lessened the differences between casual readers and professional ones (agents and editors), whose default approach to a piece of writing is rejection. “Give me a reason to keep reading this.” Such an outlook leads to a low tolerance for things like cliches, repetitiousness, and typos. Writers are especially apt to notice these imperfections because they are hyper-aware of them in their own writing.

Despite all this, the primary audience of many indie authors is other writers. Which is both a good thing and a bit ironic.

Writers, do you consider what your fellow writers might think of your work in progress? Do you modify your writing accordingly?

Featured image from Pexels

Last orange leaves of Cotinus cogyggria (smoke bush)

Finale

It’s been a rainy, windy fall so far here on Vancouver Island. We’ve had none of the crisp, sunny autumn days that are some of the year’s best. In fact, it feels like we skipped from summer (hot and dry) to winter (rainy and windy).

The garden is a mess. I haven’t managed to do any edge-trimming or much end-of-season cleanup. I’m not obsessive about raking up every leaf any more, since I’ve heard that fallen leaves are a valuable resource for bugs and birds. (Let’s hope the bugs aren’t the kind that cause problems for gardeners.)

But there are always a few things worth looking at…

Amanita muscaria mushroom
This Amanita muscaria mushroom popped up by the pond
Pink oriental lily, last lily of 2021
The last lily of the year. This is the first time I’ve had a lily bloom in November.
Yellow chrysanthemum flowers
The always reliable yellow chrysanthemum, not eaten by deer this time.

I see it’s raining again, so back to the work in progress!

pocket watch and book

Falling Back, Staying Put, or…?

Early this Sunday morning, clocks in most places in North America fell back by one hour, to Standard Time. (Okay, so a whole lot of smart phones jumped the gun, so to speak, a week early. Maybe courtesy of a Halloween gremlin?)

Falling back and springing forward has been happening for decades. The idea was to save energy. Or to lengthen summer evenings and not have the crack of dawn arrive at 4 a.m. Until recently, the change happened every 6 months, but “since 2007, in areas of Canada and the United States of America in which it is used, daylight saving time begins on the second Sunday of March and ends on the first Sunday of November.” (So says Wikipedia.)

As you read this, keep in mind that the tilt of the Earth relative to the Sun, and the consequent changes in day length in different places, is real and unchangeable (at least by us humans). Clock time, on the other hand, is a human construct. Until the past couple of centuries, humans managed their sleeping and waking by the sun. Now most of us are governed by clocks and artificial light.

For the past decade or so, there has been a lot of grumbling about the semiannual clock change, especially in spring, when suddenly you’re late or sleep deprived, or both. Serious proposals have been made to just stop this nonsense already. The province of British Columbia and a handful of US western states were working out a plan for permanent Daylight Saving Time just before the Covid pandemic began. The rationale was, we’re on DST for 8 months of the year already; why not just keep it year round? Like many other things, the plan was derailed by the virus.

One Canadian jurisdiction, the Yukon Territory, actually changed to permanent DST in 2020. I haven’t been able to find out how that went for people who live there, but a proposition for permanent DST was recently voted down by a narrow margin in the province of Alberta. This article addressed some of the pros and cons.

Recently, I’ve heard and read arguments against permanent DST and in favour of permanent Standard Time. Experts on sleep (not cats, but people who study sleep scientifically) say that year round DST would diverge too much from the natural sleep-wake cycle baked into our physiology. Especially in northern latitudes, sunrise in winter would happen as late as 10 a.m., which would mess us up as much as the twice a year clock change, only the effect would be of longer duration. So we’d experience more grumpiness, accidents, heart attacks, etc.

It seems that morning light has all kinds of benefits, both mental and physical. Forcing people to get up and out while their brain and body think they should still be asleep has bad effects such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and even obesity. Standard Time synchs clocks with sunrise better than Daylight Time would if the latter were maintained in winter. The later sunrises and lingering evenings of Daylight Time in summer are not shown to have those fundamental benefits.

These arguments do make sense to me, now that I’ve heard them expressed by different experts and thought about them for a while. To be truthful, the clock changes didn’t bother me that much when I was working, but then I’m lucky to have few problems getting to sleep and staying that way for at least 7 hours. And now that I’m retired, being on time isn’t as important. I lived in the province of Saskatchewan for twelve years (1980 to 1992), where permanent Standard Time is in place, with no plans to change, as far as I know. The only inconvenience there was figuring out what time it was in other places before making a phone call.

What do you think of the semiannual clock change? Are you okay with “Spring forward, fall back,” or do you want it done away with?

And here are a few garden sights from October…

Featured image from Pixabay

willow and other trees beside river

Thoughts on Cosmic Horror in Fiction

I recently re-listened to a program about H.P. Lovecraft. It prompted me to think about the element in his writing for which he is best known: cosmic horror as embodied by Cthulhu (who has become quite popular recently; you can even buy a cute Cthulhu stuffy).

But cosmic horror, also known as Lovecraftian horror–what is that? Keep in mind that HPL was an atheist and rationalist. He most definitely had no time for magic or godlike supernatural powers.

H._P._Lovecraft_in_DeLand_Florida,_June_1934
H.P. Lovecraft in 1934.
Lucius B. Truesdell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

HPL was inspired by the vastness of the known universe, and especially the not-known universe. The word vigintillion (meaning the number 1 followed by 63 zeroes) appears in a few of his stories. He was thrilled by the idea of the utter unknown, and how little humans (even educated, refined, white men of New England) matter in the grand scheme of things. The utter indifference of the cosmos to humanity is Lovecraft’s horror.

The beginning of his story “The Call of Cthulhu” pretty much sums up the idea:

double quotation mark open

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

I can relate to this. At one time, I hoped to write a piece of fiction that could be called Lovecraftian, but I have never done so. Yes, my novel The Friendship of Mortals is based on Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,” but it’s not cosmic horror in any sense. Come to that, the original story isn’t either. It precedes HPL’s exploration of that realm. Herbert West is an atypical Lovecraft character in that he has a smidge of personality, which was what inspired me to build a novel around him.

The reason none of my fiction can be called Lovecraftian is because it’s character-driven. It contains supernatural elements and even a bit of horror, but it’s really about what happens within and between the characters. To be honest, at times the supernatural stuff (revivified corpses, mysterious forces, and artifacts of power) is difficult to incorporate into the stories in a plausible way. True Lovecraftian fiction might be described as situationally-driven. The point of the story is a slow, gradual, apprehension of the situation by the character. Understanding is followed rapidly by terror.

In HPL’s stories, the point-of-view characters (they can’t really be called ‘protagonists’) are merely human vehicles to deliver the manifestations of inhuman, indifferent, monstrous entities to the reader. In no way are those stories about the characters. Yes, they have names, professions, family backgrounds and all that. But they are not struggling with relationships, bosses, addictions, or mental breakdowns (not until later, anyway). Their sole focus is whatever manifestation of cosmic horror HPL wants to show the reader. Even though I’ve read “The Call of Cthulhu” many times, I don’t remember the main character’s name. And that doesn’t even matter.

So what elements are needed in a story of Lovecraftian horror?

  • A main character with an orderly, unremarkable life without extremes or hazards, but who is alert and articulate. This person is a happy solitary, a single academic or similar. Not someone with a lot of people in their immediate surroundings. First person or close third person p.o.v.
  • A richly imagined setting. It could be almost anywhere, but should be realistic, to make its eventual wrongness seem, well, wrong.
  • A subtle and gradually increasing sense of wrongness in the surroundings.
  • An eventual sense of isolation of the narrator or p.o.v. character, brought about by the discovery of the cosmic horror.
  • A creeping sense of existential peril as a result of recognizing the cosmic horror.
  • The precise nature of the horror is never fully revealed (even when there are tentacles).
  • Destruction or madness of the p.o.v. character as the result of interaction with the cosmic horror. Note: there is no doubt that the character was sane at the beginning. This is not “unreliable narrator” territory.

A perfect example of this type of story is “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. It’s a novella originally published in 1907, and so precedes Lovecraft’s stories by a couple of decades. In fact, HPL cites it in his study Supernatural Horror in Literature as one of the finest pieces of writing in that genre. “The Willows” has all the elements I have listed. The characters are two ordinary guys on a canoe trip down the Danube River. The narrator is unnamed, and his companion is referred to only as “the Swede.” The only conflict between them is about the significance of phenomena observed in their camp on a tiny island in the river, overgrown with willow bushes. The narrator believes he is more sensitive to subtle influences than the oblivious Swede. Gradually, he becomes aware this is not so. Trust me, the story is subtly terrifying, even without a tentacle in sight.

Before I put away my pen and computer for good, I still hope to write a truly Lovecraftian story. One day I’ll re-read this post and take a shot at doing just that.

(If they let me.)

Photo by Vladislav Vasnetsov on Pexels.com

Featured image from Pexels

Book Review: Azalea Heights by Rajat Narula

This novel is set in Washington DC in 2015 or 2016, mainly in a new housing development called Azalea Heights. People are moving there intending to make fresh starts. There is an emphasis on newness, of the houses, the yards, and the neighbourhood. The characters include several immigrants from south Asia—some from India and others from Pakistan, as well as two white couples.

Naina is a recently divorced woman, originally from India, with a young son and a mother whose memory is failing. Gerard is recently retired from the US armed forces after being involved in the Iraq war; he has PTSD. The other white couple’s child drowned in their swimming pool; Kate is not dealing well with that. Altaf’s family is originally from Pakistan. His marriage is moribund and his son Zain is being radicalized by a cleric at the local mosque. Rohan is also from India, working hard to establish a restaurant. He is attracted to Naina.

Racial prejudice and religious extremism contribute to the plot. The characters are mostly realistic and fairly sympathetic. They are all dealing with life challenges of one sort or another—divorce, PTSD, grief, business challenges, the demands of parents, the troubles of children.

At times I thought there were too many characters; I found myself forgetting who was related to whom. The main characters—Naina, Rohan, and Altaf—are distinct and memorable. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the shifts from one to another are clear and not confusing.

The author is clearly familiar with south Asian culture and the immigrant experience and shows them vividly, occasionally including words and short phrases in Hindi and Urdu. I particularly enjoyed descriptions of Indian food and cooking.

In the first part of the book, each chapter presents one of the main characters and their situations. The pace is steady and the story at that point is mildly intriguing. Eventually, the characters’ lives begin to impinge on one another, in ways that are both hopeful and concerning. Tension definitely increases when a teenager goes missing. I found myself formulating a quite macabre explanation for this event, but at risk of spoilers, will say no more.

The book is realistic and includes descriptions of sexual situations. I thought one of them was unnecessarily detailed, considering its importance to the plot. Another was something of a surprise.

Once the story reaches a crisis point, tension is maintained and the book becomes a page-turner. The climax and resolution show both negative and positive aspects of American life as people overcome a variety of challenges and work together. The ending is both heartwarming and heart-wrenching.

I recommend this book to readers as a look into the lives of immigrants to the US and a different view of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

This review is based on an advance copy provided by the author.

Azalea Heights release date: October 26th
AMAZON