It’s talk like a moose day

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson discusses the importance of context in understanding language

Hey, it is talk like a moose day. Ok, not really, but it can be. The challenge is to talk like a moose all day. Can you do it? You see, the thing is a moose does not have a tremendously large vocabulary. In fact, as far as I know a moose only has one word. They say, “moooooooooooose.”

Given the constraints on vocabulary, how does a moose communicate? They do so with tone, facial expression, and context. I have read that over 90 percent of what we communicate with one another is done non-verbally. I may say, “Yes, I would love to go with you.” But my tone of voice, my ‘body language’ (such as crossed arms and feet, tilt of my head, my eyes, the corners of my mouth) all may be saying, “dude, I would rather have match sticks shoved under my toe nails and set on fire, than to go with you.”

To bring in these subtle contexts into ones writing can be a challenge. Here are a few recommendations for bring in the non-verbal aspect of communication:

1. Study body language. You can do this via observation. Watch what people do with their hands, feet, how they shift their body, move their eyes, or tilt their head when they are talking with someone. Listen for tone of voice, non-verbal pauses and utterances when someone is speaking. All of these convey much more meaning than mere words.

2. Read a good book on body language. There are tons of books about body language, look at the reviews and pick one. Or better yet, go to your public library, and ask the librarian for help.

3. Practice writing.

4. Read good writing. Go to the library, and peruse books written by excellent writers. See how, or if, they handle the non-verbal stuff.

Here are a couple of examples:

She looked at me and said, “Of course I love you.”

“Yeah, I know,” I replied.

Here is another example:

I studied her carefully. She exhaled. She slumped back into the chair. She crossed her arms. I noticed her foot began tapping. It tapped, and tapped, and tapped. It was like Morse code. I don’t know Morse code, but I knew what it was saying, she had found someone else. Finally, she looked straight at my chin, and spoke.

“Of course I love you. I always will. Till death do we part. Remember?”

I felt cold and began to tremble. That’s what I am afraid of.

“Yeah, I remember,” I replied.

Conveying the non-verbal communication is a great chance to “show, don’t tell.” So, remember, today is talk like a moose day. Pay attention to the non-verbal communication around you, and when you are ready, give it a go. Remember, a writer writes.

The absolute most important rule

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the most important rule when writing either fiction or non-fiction

Show! Don’t Tell. Show, don’t tell. This is the most important rule of all when it comes to writing either fiction or non-fiction. Ok, I don’t really know this to be true, I have done no systematic writers rules analysis, but dude (or dudette) it is important. Here are a couple examples.

Suppose I am writing a fictional work, and my protagonist is angry with someone who is withholding information in a murder investigation. My protagonist knows this person has information, but he cannot prove it. I could write the following:

Petty Officer Bare was angry with Bell. In fact, he was so angry that he could bite nails in half.

In spite of the lame cliché this sentence does not really do too much for my novel. Now, I decide to show that Petty Officer Bare is angry, rather than simply telling you that he is angry.

Petty Officer Bare felt his jaw tighten. His muscles formed tight little knots and throbbed as blood flowed through them. His mouth filled with an iron metal flavor. Damn, he thought, bit my lip again. He spoke softly, and with deliberate punctuation, “Please tell me what you know about Petty Officer Powers murder.”

In Non-Fiction show don’t tell is even more important. How many hours have I wasted trying to find instructions for doing some simple task, and I constantly run across articles that say, “You can have your computer do this.” Ok, I think, and I read the article, but it never tells me HOW to make my computer do this or that. It simply tells me that such a thing is possible. For me these types of articles are worse than useless, they are actually a detriment because they clutter up search engine results, while providing little to the corpus of knowledge on a subject.

Am I being cruel? I don’t think so. Consider this, if I did not know that a particular thing was possible, then obviously I would not be searching for it. The way search engines work (at least today) is that they rarely return something that is not at least somewhat related to what I typed in. Therefore if I am searching for how to enable the screen saver on my computer, I do not need an article telling me that one of the great features of Windows is that I can set my own screen saver – I already know that. What I want to know is where do I go to enable this feature. In other words, show, don’t tell. With technical articles, blogs and books, this often takes the form of a series of screen shots. This is because, most actions on a computer now days, require an entire series of actions, not a simple point and click. At times, this becomes even more confusing because I need to download additional software or drivers, or turn on some obscure advanced feature first. Once again, Show, don’t tell. Show me how to get to the secret location, where I can enable the hidden feature, so that I can turn on the really useful feature.

I think, that with computers at least, many times at least, the problem may be that the writer does not know how to really do it. They made a change away from the default configuration, or installed updates, a long time ago. Therefore, it comes back to how many updates have been applied, how many tweaks have been made. Careful documentation on their part will help. Also create reference, baseline images of installations. Using these baseline images, try to enable the feature. Then document the sequence, and take lots of screen shots.

So, it may not be the most important rule, but Show! Don’t Tell, is certainly one that will transform your writing – regardless of your genre.

Conflict and a lack of resolution

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the need for conflict in ones writing

One of the themes when I was growing up was, “Why can’t we all just get along.” It was a noble sentiment. There were some who could not even agree on that. Whether getting along is practical or not, one should at least agree that in principal anyway, getting along is a worthy goal. Oh well. Maybe I don’t understand the controversy surrounding getting along with others.

One thing I do know. When writing, we cannot have happy books about happy people doing happy things. Why? Well, it quickly becomes boring. At least so it would appear. Maybe it is boring because, for the most part, our own lives are fairly stress and conflict free. I don’t know, I am not a sociologist. I just know that after a while, books with no conflict quickly end up on the not completed stack in my house.

So there needs to be conflict. How that conflict resolves depends on the nature of the book. If it is a mystery novel, these things are general out of the traditional romance field and so they have somewhat happy endings. Most mysteries the murder is solved. It is a more modern tradition where the criminal gets away with it, but at least the murder is solved. Most of the time, the murder is solved, the murderer is caught and brought to justice in some way.

But along the way, the protagonist is in for a heck of a ride. Everything bad that can happen will generally happen. If it is easy, then the task is not worthy of the protagonist. This springs from the early epic traditions. The hero is a normal flawed individual, who using a peculiar set of skills solves the mystery. Sometimes it is a piece of trivia that unlocks the mystery – such as how long it takes to cook traditional grits. At other times, it is simply the ability to keep on asking questions to the point of annoying a suspect. This is the, “Oh by the way sir. One more thing…..” The antagonist invariably falls into the trap of their own hubris.

So we love our heroes. We give them certain abilities, and then set their world upside down. It is a strange world, but also it is a pretty safe bet that the protagonist will be in peril often, but will also … just barely … squeak by. Conflict. But safe conflict. And know the hero will not die.

Dude, it’s like, you know, the way they talk

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about writing dialogue and offers hints and tips for effective use

It seems there are two types of beginning writers: those who are afraid of dialog, and those who think they are great at writing dialog. Neither is completely without merit, and neither is completely wrong.

Writers who are afraid to write dialog, think that dialog is some sort of mystical feature of fiction, and are afraid that they will not get it exactly correct. Those beginners who think they are great at writing dialog, typically think writing dialog is just typing what people say, and they tend to overcompensate for weak description, or for a struggling plot.

Obviously, I am just making this stuff up, and I have not conducted extensive studies on the subject, but lets take the earlier descriptions as a point of departure.

When properly handled, dialog can do the following:

  • Reveal character
  • Advance the plot
  • Provide backstory
  • Control pacing

First I want to begin with using dialog to reveal character. The choice of words, the way a person talks use of slang, or proper grammar all help to reveal things about a character. For example, if a character uses profanity, or not, might inform readers a bit about the character. Does the character reveal bigotry in his or her word choice? Is the chracter excitable, or calm? All of these types of things can appear on display via dialog.

There are many ways to advance the plot via dialog. Two characters can make plans via dialog, they can confront bad guys, question suspects, learn of conspiracies, and all sorts of other things all via dialog.

Revealing backstory via dialog is something that calls for the utmost attention from the writer. Otherwise the story ends up sounding like a cheap cartoon. Pay close attention to “as you know Bob” kinds of things. For example, “As you know Bob, when you broke your leg skiing last summer, the Doctor told you to avoid stressing your knees or you could end up crippled for life. If you enter the pole vault, you might never walk again.”

This can be re-cast and still achieve the same effect.

“Pole vault? Are you stupid. What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking how impressed Cindy will be when I bring home the medal.”

“Yeah, and will Cindy go to the dance with you when you are in a wheel chair?”

“Why don’t you take her skiing while you are at it. Only don’t come crying to me when you can’t walk anymore.”

Description slows things down, but snappy dialog speeds things up. Here is an example of how description slows stuff down.

Bob looked around the room. It was large and sparsely decorated. On the opposite side of the room, stood Charlie. Charlie was a mountain of a man, with a full beard, and long stringy hair. He was munching on something that reminded Bob of rotten fish. Perhaps it was, Charlie was not known as a gourmand. In fact, it was widely known that Charlie had the culinary discretion of a wild dog.

So the story stops while we get the description of an uncouth man standing alone in a large room. It does not advance the plot, it does however slow down the pacing. This may be needed, or not. If I want to speed things alone, show characterization, and maybe even advance the plot, I can use dialog.

Bob crossed the large room, “Damn Charlie, what are you eating?”

Charlie stoked his long black beard, “Sardines. I have a date tonight, and I am in training.”

Bob watched while the large man shook his long greasy tangled hair like a rutting musk ox.

How to be an Effective Writer

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the number one tip to be an effective writer

I am not sure who said that writing was 90% perspiration ad 10% inspiration, but that seems to be correct. The inspiration part is “I would like to write a book about …” The perspiration part is all the writing, editing, re-writing, additional editing, submission, page proofs reviews, and subsequent publicity efforts. In short, the easiest thing in the world is to get an idea for a book. The hardest thing in the world is to actually write, and to get published.

Over the years I have mentored literally dozens of aspiring writers. Only one has actually had his book published. It may be that I am a terrible mentor, but I also think that there is a huge misunderstanding as to what it takes to actually get a book written, edited, and published.

One of the first things I tell an aspiring writer is this: “Are you willing to work every night after work, and all day on the weekend for six to nine months, with no hope of obtaining any return on your investment in time?” If you were doing consulting during that time, instead of writing a book, you could easily earn a significant amount of money. Writing a book is not a get rich quick scheme. At best it is an earn a little bit of money over a long period of time scheme. This fact by itself is often enough to dissuade the faint of heart.

So what is the number one tip to be an effective writer? The secret lies in the order of the work. Keep each step separate for maximum efficiency. So, while writing, just write. Don’t edit. This trick was, perhaps more important in the old days when I wrote on an old fashioned type writer. But it is still important today – maybe more so. When I am writing, I write. I do not check grammar, I do not check spelling, I do not look up facts. I do research all at once. I do a grammar pass all at once. I check spelling during a different phase of the writing.

In the old days, when I had a 45 pound of Webster’s New World dictionary, it might take me two or even three minutes to look up the spelling of a word. If I later, during the edit phase of the writing project, decide to use a different word, well, that two or three minutes was lost. But the impact is even more.

In computers we have a term, context switching, that refers to the performance hit to a computer when it changes from one operation to another operation. The computer unloads a portion of memory, and then reloads a different set of memory. Humans also take context switching hits. This occurs when switching from writing mode to edit mode. All of the efficiency gained through “getting into the groove” is lost when I change to line editing.

So, my secret for effective writing? When writing – write. When editing – edit. But do not combine or confuse the two tasks. Tomorrow I will give you my secret for staying on track.

Some somewhat random thoughts about vocabulary

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about vocabulary size, and relation to reading …

BoyBearTowerOfLondon.jpgI recently ran across an interesting statistic that said that the size of the average American vocabulary is around 15,000 words. Forty years ago, the same source said, the average American vocabulary was 27,000 words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains nearly a quarter million words, but if you add in all the different meanings or uses of words, then the figure rises to nearly 750,000 words.

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Sounds like the way people talk

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about writing dialogue

BoyBearTowerOfLondon.jpg“Say, can you tell me some of the cool things you like to do when writing,” she asked.

I thought about my answer before committing, “I like to write dialogue.”

“Yes, I can see that. Umm, but you know … I am not sure that my, uh you know, dialog actually sounds, like, uh, you know, how uh, people, ummm, actually talk. Know what I mean?”

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