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I like a woman with a fast metabolism.


I've been thinking about language. And about words. And about grammar.

I like words with "U" in them. I like the sound "OO".
Mushroom. That's a good word. Squid is another good one. I think elegant is a very nice word, too. It's very onomatopoeic, I think. Elegant is a very elegant word.

I've been thinking about language for a number of reasons. It's been coming up online and in conversations. First, there is THIS  post by katiefoolery , and the ensuing discussion. I didn't comment, but I thought.

Another reason is a job I'm doing. I've got a contract taking a group of kids for five weeks. The kids in the course have to submit stories, and they have to redraft based on feedback, and so forth. Jenni, the woman who runs it (a lovely woman, very cool) says she doesn't worry about the kids' spelling or grammar. That's the last thing she fixes up, and she does it for them, rather than putting them off writing by getting all hung-up over technical points.

Where has all my thinking led me?

Point 1. I agree with katiefoolery    that the general editing of a book is important. I believe that as an author you can be overly attached, and you do not look at your writing with an objective eye. That is what editors are for: to say "I know you loved that but it sucked" or "you're telling the BORING part. THIS is the story."

Point 2. I don't think I'm shy about major structural changes. I enjoy cutting entire characters, settings or species. I cut things like back-story and Gwynnie's sex life.
I do it with malice, because, basically... well, it's about removing anything that is dragging your story down, isn't it? I enjoy saying "YOU MAKE MY STORY SUCK!" and retaliating by bringing down the CUT on things. It gives me a tremendous feeling of satisfaction to know that someone or something was making me suck and now it's GONE!!!

Point 3. I also agree that the process of adding and removing single words is a large amount of fun. I love reading a sentence over and saying "No. I need to swap this word for that" or "I don't need that word at all". I love the process of putting words together in the way that makes them sound best. I love going to rehearsal for a play I wrote three years ago and hearing someone say a line and then shouting out "I wrote that wrong! Change this word!" Because I love the way words fit together. On that note:

Point 4. Reading stories by teenagers is frustrating sometimes. Really, there are two kinds of annoying. The lesser of the two annoyances is the work that is all about the story. That's what Jenni is interested in, but I just want to sit these kids down and teach them about rhythm. And, you know... adjectives. These are the stories that read like the words are building blocks, to be rammed together and then hit with a hammer a few times.
The greater annoyance is the kids who DO use rhythm and DO use adjectives. There's this one poem a girl has written and I just want to take a red pen to it. Or a little rubber stamp. WANK. WANK. WANK. There is a perception that young aspiring writers seem to have: the more florid your writing is, the better writer you are. If you can fit seven adjectives in a line, you're a better writer than the person who fits three. Newsflash. No you're not: you're a wanker.

All: Stop picking on the children, bitch!

Point 5. The point of Point 4 is, I guess, that there are two extremes in the way we treat words. We mustn't treat them like they can just go in any order: we mustn't treat them as if WHAT they say is more important than HOW they say it. But we also mustn't use them for the sake of using them: however they may say it, words should say SOMETHING. And that something shouldn't be buried under the weight of the language used to convey it. Less, I suppose, is more.

Point 6. The most fun I ever had editing has to do with the way the character of Xanthia is portrayed in Questers. I loved the character, but thingwithtrees  found her very unlikeable. So I made three changes to her character:
1. I gave her a hideous disfiguring scar, because pretty people can be angry-making.
2. I gave her a sense of humour. Xanthia feels no emotion, so giving her humour made her totally deadpan.
3. Most importantly, I made her clumsy.
In the original version, Xanthia first came into the story when Our Hero, Gwynnie accidentally bumps into her the street. I rewrote the scene with just one simple change. Instead of Gwynnie bumping into Xanthia, Xanthia bumps into Gwynnie.
The difference would blow your mind.

Point 7. Getting back to the way we treat words, I can't get on board with Jenni's policy of not worrying about the kids' grammar and spelling. Grammar is important. Spelling is important. I understand that she will fix things up: she's not going to publish this stuff with the errors in. But I'm concerned about the way she's teaching these kids. She's teaching them that the story is important. I couldn't agree more, it IS important. But while you've got these kids captive, and you're trying to instill them with a love of writing, go one better. Instill them with a love of words.

To Conclude. Words are highly-trained ballerinas. They know how to balance delicately and they're able to tell their story that way. They are, in fact, elegant. You can't just ask them to breakdance. Nor can you as word choreographer just shove in a whole bunch of pirouettes just to show off.
Editing has two forms, both of which are fun. You go through a work as a WHOLE. To use a new metaphor, you chainsaw off anything that's the wrong shape and you end up with one of those hedges shaped like a swan.
But then you've got to hone in on individual words. I choose to mix my metaphors up and say that the swan-shaped hedge is like the basic choreography. That's done, but opening in night is in two weeks, so you've got to move that ballerina's arm in the second movement, and let's ask that one to shave off his beard. Because the little things have to be right, or no one will care about the big things.

And your carefully cultivated swan hedge will look crappy, because all the ballerinas have sloppy posture.

All: Marvellous metaphor mixing! Top hole!

So... now my questions are to the flist, particularly the enormous portion of it that writes.

Do you disagree on any point? Do you consider the story you're telling to be more important than the words you use? Or are the words more important than the story? I'm saying, I guess that they're of equal importance. Do you think writing is about a love of storytelling or a love of words?

I want to read YOUR editing stories. Ever made an edit that just made you say "AHA!!! That's what I'm doing with this thing!"?

What are some of your favourite words?

And how do you feel about language? Thoughts, remarks, anecdotes.

I've been thinking about language.

Your turn.



( 8 comments! — Make Remark! )
May. 17th, 2007 05:10 am (UTC)
You have embiggened that post with your cromulent thoughts.
May. 17th, 2007 08:13 am (UTC)
Oh gods, I hate hate hate people like this person you described. They make me want to rant all over the place and swear with great passion. I don't really like swearing, so I resent it when people cause me to do so.

Would she get the kids to make a roast dinner without giving them the instructions and skills to do so? Would she get them to read without teaching them how? YOU CANNOT WRITE IF YOU DON'T KNOW THE RULES AND SKILLS OF WRITING. Sorry - I know you're on my side here, but I just desperately needed to rant. If she realised how badly she was short-changing her students then perhaps she might change her attitude. It makes me sad, really. :( <-- See?
May. 17th, 2007 09:42 am (UTC)
Totally agree on all points.

But I want the $42 an hour, so I've got to keep my mouth shut.
May. 17th, 2007 09:55 am (UTC)
I'm feeling extremely un-eloquent and un-thoughtful, but I'm going to try because, you know, Great Long Post About Writing - obviously I have to respond :-) So:

It gives me a tremendous feeling of satisfaction to know that someone or something was making me suck and now it's GONE!!!

I love the editing process (pirouetting hedges give me happy smiles). I often love it more than the writing itself, because you're conscious of the process; you're in control of it. You actually know what you're doing, as opposed to the act of creation which happens in a sort of trance that you can't think about too closely or it will stop working. And yes, I agree, I love cutting things that are supurfluous and make the story drag or take the emphasis off what it ought to be, no matter how cool they are on their own, because again, it makes me feel that I own the story, far more than writing it does.

There is a perception that young aspiring writers seem to have: the more florid your writing is, the better writer you are. If you can fit seven adjectives in a line, you're a better writer than the person who fits three

To be honest, I think this is a stage you really do have to go through. It's part of learning to love words and to love arranging them. At first of course you're going to go overboard, because you've only just discovered that you can do it at all.

I rewrote the scene with just one simple change. Instead of Gwynnie bumping into Xanthia, Xanthia bumps into Gwynnie.

I love touches like that :D I'm trying to think of my own favourite edit. I don't know. My favourite character touches usually turn up in the middle of writing, without me knowing about them. Ooh, OK, this is a fanfic example, but: I wrote the opening scene of The If Sieve and just cringed. Everything about it was clumsy, but the worst was the characterisation for Crabbe and Goyle. Somehow I hadn't thought about the fact that they'd be in almost every scene, and so I'd made them very much as Harry sees them - identical and brutish, which made absolutely no sense with Draco's POV. I spent ages painstakingly putting together ideas about how I could adapt canon to give them some depth, and then I gave Goyle his Super Watch and suddenly I had him.

She's teaching them that the story is important. I couldn't agree more, it IS important. But while you've got these kids captive, and you're trying to instill them with a love of writing, go one better. Instill them with a love of words.

If she planned to move on to the mechanics of writing later, then the story-focused approach could work. Only as part of a process, though. And ... mm, it's awkward, because no matter how exciting the story that you hammer out, if you don't have the skills to express it, then it's going to be discouraging and disappointing. I guess the thing is that it's all craft. You can't get away from that. You can focus on an exciting story, but you still have to pay attention to the form of the story, whether your resolution is satisfying and answers the questions of the premise, whether your pacing is alright. Maybe it really is something that you have to do all at once - you have to think about all of it, at every step, and just accept that you'll get better at them all as you go.

That last bit was incredibly incoherent, wasn't it? I don't have a clear opinion, though, so I'll leave it.
May. 17th, 2007 11:48 am (UTC)
It is true you have to go through that ludicrously florid stage, you're right.

I went through more of a High Drama stage, myself.

I agree about being more CONSCIOUS of the editing, too. Although being in that writing-trance can be fabulous, when you hit your stride.
May. 17th, 2007 10:16 am (UTC)
See, I do hate people thinking that grammar and spelling isn't needed... I do have a love for it, and try to encourage it...

...but I also think that pushing it on kids that age does everything to turn people off. I was one of those kids who didn't have grammar and spelling pushed on them. Back then, when people covered my work with red pen marks showing where I had done things wrong, it made me judge myself too much and I stopped caring about getting the story out, and more about getting that one sentence right, and then I would hate writing so much I'd stop for ages.

I think you've got to develop in them a love for words, a love for things sounding right, but not push the grammar and spelling on them. It was the fact I could bury myself in a story that started my love, and I wanted to get better at it, and that was when I was ready to learn. I copied books as best I could. That's how I learnt grammar, and it was my desire to do better that drove me there. Whenever anyone ever criticised my work, I took it personally. I didn't mind the grammar correction sometimes, but it was the blanket "if you don't get the grammar right, you can't write" shit that I got from a few teachers that turned me off writing.

So, no, I have no problem with that approach at all. I think you should make the kids want to write, love the story telling first, and then slowly start to show them how to make things better. Rather than dumping grammar and spelling on them first. Because that’s going to seem like a chore, and it’ll turn them off writing. And you might say then that they’re not meant to write, but that’s what I did. For me it has always been the story that came first, it’s only after years of experience that I’ve started to really work out how to tell that story better because I wanted to, not because it was pushed. And do just remember, they’re kids. How about you go back and read the stuff you were writing when you were a kid? I know I go back and find some serious wank, so they’re just doing the same thing.

And that’s my long ramble about that.
May. 17th, 2007 11:56 am (UTC)
*thinks about childhood writing*

Well... quite. It's always a buzz to read the stuff you wrote when you were younger, too. I tend to think "Wow... that sucked." But it's always a reminder that you've gotten better, and that means you're going to keep on getting better.

I think you've got to develop in them a love for words, a love for things sounding right, but not push the grammar and spelling on them.

Well, quite. That's what I'm saying. I don't by any means think if you're not interested in grammar you can't be a writer, though. I think there are very few kids that heavily interested in sentence structure when they start out.

Seems to me that just changing their spelling before you publish them is a bad idea though. I'd prefer to sit down with them and talk about the grammar and spelling changes, so that they can learn. If you just fix it for them, they never will, and why would they?

Like you said, you have develop in them a love of WORDS. Not just a love of storytelling, which is Jenni's approach.

Of course, having said all this, some of the stuff they've written is AWESOME! One girl has done a really effective short poem, and three of the guys have written hilarious little stories. And then there are moments when you just go "YES! That's it! There's the talent... that sentence right there!!!"

But we're only supposed to give them general feedback, which I find frustrating. I want to go into detail with them about how they've put every word together. Probably bore most of them shitless if I did, though...

May. 18th, 2007 08:02 am (UTC)
Very interesting post!! I know wot you mean about the love of words, it's such a nice feeling.

My random thoughts on the spelling/grammar issue:
There is such an insane political upheaval with regards to how to teach children to read and write at the moment. The current syllabuses are totally overloaded with outcomes for the kiddies. No wonder writing skills are so poor. There's just too much to get through. Basically, teachers today are being told that the best way for children to learn literacy skills is to get them involved with reading/writing for comprehension. When they read a story, it's not just about learning individual words. We have to ask them, "What's the story about? How did this character feel? What do you think the author's agenda is for writing this story?" Then the five-year-old bursts into tears because she dropped her milk on the floor, and you have to start over... ;) heehee, okay, not quite that bad...

So I can understand where Jenni is coming from with her view of spelling and grammar being the last thing to worry about. That stuff is considered 'easy' to teach, because it's almost always a matter of right vs wrong. The 'hard' stuff is considered to be how stories are structured, and how to inspire some children to actually put a pen to paper, and how to get them to think of new and interesting ideas based on different topics. It sounds like Jenni is in that same frame of mind.

I agree with Flit, though - editing should be integrated throughout the process, not just left till the end.

My other thought is that I did learn the majority of spelling and grammar at school, but it also came from reading, and from my parents. I'd give them an essay to read and they'd scrawl over it with red pen about how words are spelt and how sentences are structured. It wasn't until after Year 12 that I realised that they weren't going to help me forever. That's when I took it upon myself to really understand how to write effectively. In other words, if it took me 12 years of constant literacy in and out of school to truly appreciate grammar and spelling and editing, then it's gonna take a lot more for a LOT of children to enjoy the same aspects - and it's not going to come from us telling them how it's done, it's going to come from them mucking around with it all and seeing wot works for themselves.

The strangest thing is that everyone, young or old, enjoys playing with words, with things like rhymes and tongue twisters. Even the most moronic, most illiterate gangster with no respect for anyone other than himself probably still enjoys giving people nicknames like "Dead Fred" or something. 'Hahahaha, that rhymes, I'm so clever,' he thinks.

Loving language is a natural love. It's only as children get older that they get it in their heads that they can't understand the rules and they say they hate it. They don't hate it, they just don't understand it enough to have the confidence to really enjoy it. So perhaps Jenni has some footing to stand on there, with not wanting to push them into the 'right/wrong' ways of thinking.

*shrugs* It's a hard balance. You either focus on the grammar/spelling a lot to the detriment of teaching how to compose a ripper storyline, and at the risk of scrawling NO NO NO NO NO! all over their work - or you focus on teaching them how to spell and construct sentences word-by-word - or you try to take the best of both worlds and accept that there's only so much you can teach, coz the rest is up to them.

All the best for it, Kayt!! It sounds like a nice group, and I bet you have a lot of fun!! Let us know any tasks you set them to do, coz I'd love to hear any ideas to use in the classroom myself :)
( 8 comments! — Make Remark! )

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