How Aly Raisman Informed my Writing

Cross-posting with my other blog. In this blog post, I talk about what the recent “scandal” in the gymnastics world has meant to me as a writer (I don’t like the term “scandal”; it makes it sound like a lot of idle gossip; I just don’t know a better word for it at the moment). In a nutshell, the testimony gave me incredible insight into the psychological damage that abuse causes and the caustic atmosphere that leads to it. Perhaps this all hit home for me because, as a fan of gymnastics, I knew these young women so well as competitors. In any case, here’s the blog:

Writerly Wednesday–The Key to the Enigma

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: writing is weird. Being a writer is weird. As a writer, you spend most your time thinking about people and situations that aren’t real. You hear voices in your head and see visions. And yet, you aren’t schizophrenic or delusional. It’s a good thing. It’s encouraged.

The weirdest thing about a writer’s mind is, maybe, how it just bubbles away beneath the surface. How all the pieces hover there, just waiting for that bright, shining thread to connect them into something coherent. I’ve had the experience before, and I recently had it again with my current WIP. You’rr struggling with a plot knot, or with a character who just isn’t working. You beat your head against the wall. Nothing. And then! Then the idea is there-your subconscious has somehow worked through it and in a moment of calm, the subconscious pops into your conscious with a solution.

I had been struggling with one half of the setting of my WIP. Something just wasn’t working. It wasn’t anything I could name, but everything was coming out loosey-goosey. It didn’t cohere. I tried a hundred different things: I tried adding characters and switching up the particulars of the setting. It still just wasn’t working. One day as I sat on the bus reading some nonfiction research on the topic, it came to me in a blaze of understanding: move the MCs out of the relative quiet and isolation of an English country house and move them right up to the front lines of war. And bam, just like that, everything seemed to click. In a lot of ways, the setting wasn’t that different. But it was just different enough.

I had a similar experience with Channing. For the longest time, it was set in Baltimore. It took me a while, even after I moved to the DC area, to have that “duh” moment. I don’t know why it took so long, and it’s hard to say exactly what it was about Washington City (i.e., DC) that clicked. It just did.

More recently, as I was writing the prequel to Channing, I found myself battling with Emily’s storyline. Most of it worked, but it just didn’t come together properly. Then, I was reading one of the Outlander books, and there was a scene on a dock and, boom! I knew how to rearrange Emily’s story. Just like that, I found the winning formula. Then another revelation as I walked home from the bus stop one day: pride. That was Emily’s defining trait. That and the idea for a scene at the docks came together and, finally, I had a storyline I was happy with.

I think this kind of eureka moment is a sign that I’m getting better at this whole plotting thing (you’ll notice most my duh moments have to do with plot). It’s not my strongest point, and it doesn’t come all that naturally. I have to push and prod my ideas into a compelling plot. And it seems that my brain is learning how to work that out. It’s coming up with solutions. Years ago, on much earlier projects, it was just fumbling around, and those moments of clarity didn’t come. I was still learning how to make it happen. Now my mind, at least the subconscious part of it, has some idea what it’s doing. If only I could get my conscious mind to do the same . . .

Writerly Wednesday–Cuss Counts

I’m going to take a moment out of my normally SUPER CLASSY fare and talk about cussing. It’s bad. Right? We’ve all be told since we were two that it’s bad to cuss. But we all do it. And, really, there’s nothing inherently bad about bad words. It’s how we use them that hurts. How and when we cuss says a lot about us. It’s the same with writing: how and when we cuss tells us something about us as writers and something our manuscripts as an exercise in language.

So, for curiosity’s sake, I decided to do a cuss count of my various projects.

Grove of Venus (90k words):

18 damns

5 hells (three are literal)

1 ass

2 bastard (one is literal)

1 bitch

2 f*cks (one character repeats what another says, ergo two)

1 piss

Channing (100k):

28 damns

10 hells

2 asses (not including Harry! Oh man, that joke will never, ever get old)

2 bitches

3 bastards

3 sh*ts

1 pussy

1 piss

Hamilton Gray (45k novella):

58 damns

21 hells

4 asses (not including Kleiner–See? It never gets old! Ever!)

2 bitches

1 bastard

3 sh*ts

5 pisses

The Cotton War (105k):

48 damns

14 hells

3 sh*ts

3 pisses

11 bastards (8 literal)


Relatively, my writing is pretty tame. I know some cuss counts would be way, way higher. There is only one word I will not use: the c word for a certain female body part. Otherwise, I’m open to cussing. But I use cusses for a point. As you can see, I like a good damn. I like a good ass (who the hell doesn’t?). F*cks? Well, use sparingly, you know? Many of these bad words I use literally, including f*ck. (What? She’s a prostitute for eff’s sake.)

Obviously, genre has a lot to do with the level of cussing. Historical isn’t generally filled with blue language like, for instance, hard-boiled mystery is. Victorians (Channing, The Cotton Wars, Hamilton Gray) were not as given to cursing as we are, and they certainly didn’t curse in quite the way we do. Sure, many of them cussed up a storm, but they didn’t say effing this and effing that (that wasn’t a “thing” until relatively recently). And middle-class Victorians cursed only fairly mildly and under certain circumstances. That being said, these are all adults, and bad words happen.

In Hamilton Gray, the cursing is something of a plot point. Hamilton apologizes for swearing, and Missy says, “I’ll be damned if I care.” Also, this is an old soldier, so, yes, he curses.

In Grove of Venus, I’m going for a particular tone. It’s fairly sedate and thoughtful, so there’s a tad less cursing.

I also–shh–slipped in an anachronistic curse: pussy. I debated over it, but I think I’m going to keep it. No, the word pussy didn’t have all the meaning in the mid-1800’s that it has now. But I know that word carries a lot of weight and connotations, and I needed to tap into that. No word from the time period really did quite the work that this word does for me. It’s a very important point in the story, actually. Everett is being surrounded and threatened, and they’re taunting him for being a pacifist. One of his assailants calls him a “pussy”. Because of Everett’s history with his cousin Harry, it’s ironic: Harry has been teased all his life as being a mama’s boy. Now he and his friends are using the same taunt.

But . . . mostly it’s just fun to count up the cuss words and giggle in childish glee that I’m an adult and can get away with it.

Writerly Wednesday–Editing

Editing is equally important to writing as, well, writing. Anyone can bang out a string of words into computer. But do they mean anything? Do they mean what you want them to mean? Does that meaning connect with your reader?

A lot of writers, myself included, are intimidated by editing. It takes a lot of time and effort. Editing 100,000 words of text isn’t the work of a few hours. It’s the work of a few days or weeks. It’s also intimidating to realize that what you wrote might not be any good.

But that’s okay, because you can fix it. You just can’t be afraid to do it.

I consider myself a decent self-editor. I’ve got grammar down pat. I’m good at non-cliched descriptions. My dialogue generally flows nicely. I usually hack away at my own words until they say what I want them to. But I–yes, even I–don’t always know exactly why something just doesn’t work. Sometimes, good writing is a bit like porn: you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

Take, for example, the paragraph I worked on today. Everett is packing up his stuff to get out of town as fast as he can because one of his friends has murdered another. Here’s how the paragraph began:

The sight of Uriah’s dead body had reminded him of his mother’s cold, pale face as she lay in her bed with open eyes staring at the ceiling. An hour earlier, she had been reading him scripture. She had kissed him on the top of the head where his curls parted, and sent him off to play. When he came back with his rubber ball in hand, he found her stiff and lifeless as a wax doll. He’d been too young to understand that she’d been ill for weeks beforehand. Uriah’s body, too, had seemed puppet-like as it jostled in the back of the wagon.

And this is how it ended up:

His thoughts jumped to Uriah’s body, which had already begun to stiffen as it bounced along in the back of the wagon. The image was eerie and familiar. He thought of his mother, as lifeless as a wax doll, her eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling over her head. Not an hour earlier, she’d kissed him on the top of his head where his curls parted and sent him out to play. When he returned with his rubber ball in hand, she was gone, and he’d been left without mother or father.

Honestly, I’m still not entirely satisfied. I wasn’t sure what it was that didn’t work for me with the first paragraph. But I’m pretty sure now that it was the fact that we jump all over the place–Uriah’s body a few hours before the “present” moment, then his mother’s dead face, then his mother reading Scripture to him when he was a boy, then his mother sending him out to play, then him finding her dead body, then her lingering illness prior to her death, then Uriah again. I did bring it back around to Uriah, but the jumps in time weren’t working. It doesn’t help that the entire paragraph is “the past”. Everett is remembering Uriah’s body, which in turn reminded him of his mother.

The second paragraph jumps around, too, and leaves out a bit of information. We lose the Scripture and the lingering illness. But we add an image of Uriah’s body going into rigor mortis and the fact that Uriah was orphaned by his mother’s death. I also tried to avoid “had” as much as possible by writing the bit about his mother’s death in simple past tense (“her eyes staring”, “he returned”, and “she was gone” as opposed to “her eyes had stared”, “he had returned,” and “she had been gone”). It still jumps around a bit, and it seems a clunky way to clue our readers into the fact that Everett’s mother is dead, but I think my second attempt gets at least a passing grade, unless someone wants to object.