Weasel Words and Tips for Writers

‘I could see her looking at me, as she readied herself to tell me about my overuse of weasel words in the nicest possible way. I felt my face tighten as I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

Or

‘She looked at me, ready to tell me about my overuse of weasel words. I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

 

Recently I had the good fortune of meeting with Perth writer Louise Allen. I had won a manuscript appraisal as part of the Twitter #authorsforfiries auction, which saw me handing over the first 10,000 words of my novel.

It’s a luxury at the best of times to be able to sit with a fellow writer and talk about nothing but your own writing, but to be handed a mirror to hold up to your work, to identify the flaws, is equally valuable.

 

weasle words

 

Louise made the following comment about the paragraph above:

“you could do away with ‘Isabelle watched’ and go straight to ‘Isabelle’s mother studied the image.’ The reader knows Isabelle’s watching, because it’s in her POV. It removes a step between the reader and the action, and brings the reader into the story more.”

Weasel words are the fodder of the new writer, adding extra words thinking it deepens our writing (it doesn’t) or adding layers that end up removing the readers from the story.

Taking Louise’s sage advice I turned my gaze on another recently finished manuscript, determined to make sure I hadn’t repeated my sins.

Turns out I’m prolific with my use of weasel words. Hundreds of them peppered my novel like a 1980s Pepper Steak. Unfortunately for me, your use of weasel words is a bit like a golf score, you want it to be as low as possible.

I did a search and find on the following phrases and was shocked by the numbers I saw:

51 instances of ‘I looked…’

23 times I wrote ‘I could hear’

93 cases of ‘I could see’ and ‘I saw’

127 instances of ‘I felt’

And a whopping 274 times I used ‘just’.

 

It took a couple of days and some seriously strong coffee but I managed to remove about 80% of all my weasel words. The effect of course is to cut the parachute strings and drop the reader directly into the story.

You can’t remove all instances of these phrases. Sometimes the word is fulfilling an actual function and not just bad writing.

For example:

I felt my face turn pink  = bad

I felt frumpy in comparison = fine

 

I just stared up at him in adoration = bad

Perhaps he’s only now just discovering who he really is = fine

 

I could see that she was uncomfortable = bad

I tried to sit up so I could see him better = fine

 

I saw Adam purse his lips = bad

My face went red as I saw huge boxes of condoms on the table = fine

 

I could hear the smile in his voice = really bad

I could hear the rush of air as the paramedic pushed the needle into her chest = fine

 

I plan to continue writing the same way I always have, letting the words flow through my fingers without censorship. But now I have a weapon in my editing arsenal, and before I even consider hitting send or publish – I will be doing a search and destroy on my weasel words.

When Good Comes From Bad

The last few months have seen some of the worst bushfires in Australian history, probably world history. Almost 16 million hectares burnt across 7 states and territories. Over 3,500 homes lost. More than 1 billion animals perished.

And 33 lives lost.

In early January, two Aussie authors Emily Gale and Nova Weetman decided to do something about it. They put the call out on Twitter to other writers to donate something for auction, with the money raised going to fundraisers supporting the bushfire effort.

Enter #authorsforfireys

The original goal was modest: to raise $13,000 to support our beloved fireys, but before long it was clear that the twitter auction was going to be much more.

By the close of the auction, more than 1,200 items had been donated included signed books, the chance to named as a character in a book, manuscript appraisals, introductions, author visits to bookclubs, personalised poems, original illustrations, even a handmade rug.

I bid on a number of items, including Tess Wood’s incredible Italian feast for eight people. For much of the week I was the leading bidder. I had already chosen my guests, a mix of new and established Perth-based writers and I could already taste the tiramisu. Sadly, it was not to be, although I could hardly begrudge the winner, especially when they more than doubled my final bid.

There were a few other things I bid on with more success.

Last year I finished a manuscript called Behind Closed Doors that won me a place on the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program and KSP First Edition Retreat. Wise advice from facilitator Laurie Steed suggested I get a sensitivity check on a scene involving one of my characters. I needed to find out if something I wrote would be realistic for a closeted gay man in the 1970s.

The problem being of course, I didn’t know any closeted gay men who were around in the 1970s.

‘Talk to Holden Sheppard,’ he suggested. Not that Holden is closeted or anywhere near old enough to be alive in the 1970s, but he is generous and open and a very good writer.

I had read and loved Holden’s incredible book Invisible Boys, but I didn’t know him, and I’m not the sort to send an unsolicited email asking for help.

Then the #AuthorsForFiries auction happened, and Holden was offering a one hour chat about anything writing related over a cup of coffee. It was like the universe heard what I was saying and delivered it in a neat, hashtagged parcel.

At the very last minute I was outbid by a measly $1. I was devasted.

But then, about an hour after the auction closed, I received a message from Holden. If I was happy to donate my bid to another good cause, he would give me the one hour consult. See what I mean about being generous?

Shannon and Holden Sheppard

With Holden Sheppard, author of Invisible Boys

There was no way I was missing out on being the winning bidder for a manuscript appraisal by Louise Allen, author of the very beautiful The Sisters Song. I even upped my own bid at one point, because it was such a good cause. I had been following Louise’s blog for a number of years and there is no one else I would have wanted to read the first few chapters of my novel set here in Perth just before the start of World War 1 [click here to find out how it all started].

This week we met and sat for two hours, just talking about my book and characters, the real life people whose stories form the basis of the book, and my own journey as I researched.

Anyone who spends much of their lives closeted away writing will know how indulgent it is just to talk about your precious project with another writer. It was instructive and enlightening and has given me much needed motivation to pick the story back up and keep working on it.

Shannon and Louise Allen

With Louise Allen, author of The Sisters Song

The #AuthorsForFireys auction raised more than half a million dollars in less than a week. One nice aspect was that each author or illustrator who offered something for the auction was able to choose the specific cause they wanted their winner to donate to. This meant funds were spread around the country, benefiting local fire volunteers and animal rescue, local charities and greening groups.

The twitter auction also forged connections and relationships between writers across the country, bringing a tightknit community closer, and showing the real power of words.

And I made a couple of friends.

 

I Don’t Think I Am a Stalker

Have you ever had the experience where you read something, and think ‘Oh my God. That is EXACTLY what I was thinking. That person must know me. We must be, like, TWINS.’

I have that experience on a fairly regular basis when I read a column by Perth writer Ros Thomas, every Saturday morning in the West Australian.

Although she is a few years older than me, and her eldest child is a teenager and a boy, and she is actually qualified to call herself a writer (she was a journalist for more than two decades), I often feel that her words could be my very own, and the experiences she writes about, could be something that happened to me only days prior. It’s kinda spooky, but it gives me the (false) impression that I KNOW her, or (even more creepy), that she knows me. Which she doesn’t.

She smiled at me once though and looked in my direction. I went with a friend to one of her book launches, because my friend actually knows her, and was kind enough to introduce me. And then they went back to talking about stuff that I wasn’t involved in. But that was okay, because I was so excited to just see her in person. When you read someone’s words regularly, you begin to form ideas of what they look like and sound like, more than the tiny little photo in the corner of the magazine ever gives away.

When she began to talk to the assembled group about some of her favourite columns and how she came to be a writer, I did what I always do when people around me are being smart – I began to write down everything she said. Part of me (the overly optimistic and possibly delusional part) sometimes thinks that she is me in five or ten years time, and that her writing success could be mine if I continue down this road. She is a mum with three kids who is also a writer. So am I! She just happens to have a book deal. So I was eager to soak up everything she had to say.

At one stage I felt that she was describing me when she said that sometimes she jumps out of bed to write down a funny thought, that she is constantly writing notes, ideas and overheard conversations on bits of paper. I wanted to put my hand up and tell her I keep a white board in the shower in case I get a really good idea when I am washing my hair (but I didn’t).

So, fellow writers, here are some of the pearls that this fantastic – and very humble and real – writer had to say:

  • Don’t write about anything you haven’t experienced yourself. It will keep you authentic and on track.
  • Writing is a discipline. Force yourself to sit at your desk even if you are not inspired, eventually something will come.
  • Do a lot of research. Even for a simple story, there are more facts or background that can help improve a story and make it even richer.
  • Be forensic in your observations. Go back to a place where a thought or story came into your head. Take pictures. Look at the colours, the smell, the texture. Make it authentic. If you are secure in your mental imagery, it will make you a better writer.
  • Remember the musicality and rhythm of language. Your writing must be able to be read effortlessly.
  • The hardest thing to get right is dialogue. If you are writing about a conversation you had, get it on paper as soon as possible.

At the end of the session we had the opportunity to buy a copy of her book and have it signed. I desperately wanted to ask her an intelligent question, but I could only babble my name. I wanted to tell her how she told my stories, and asked my questions and (occasionally) lived my life. But as I listened to other people in the queue, I realised that they all felt the same way. They felt an attachment to this woman as well, whether they were young or old or male or female. Mostly female though.

It was a timely reminder of the value of being common, and I certainly don’t mean that in a derogatory way. By common, I mean recognisable, universal and familiar. It is our shared experiences which bring us together, whether we are reading a column in a newspaper or a blog on the internet. Being told I am common is the comment I value the most by my own readers – ‘you have written exactly what I have been thinking’ or ‘I am so glad I am not the only one who does that.’

Ros Thomas put into words a common experience. She just does it very beautifully, and effortlessly. I wasn’t able to tell her any of this, but I’m sure she already knows.

When I got home and looked at the book she had signed, I saw she had written ‘it was lovely to meet you’, and I thought to myself: thanks to the power of words, we already know each other.

 

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Machiavellian Bastards

In the not so distant past I attended the ‘Writing Dramatic Dialogue’ class run by author John Harman. I had hoped that it would help me limber up my writing muscles: what I didn’t realise is that it would give me licence to kill – in the literary sense that is.

John started by telling us:

‘You sit in a room by yourself, making up words for people who don’t exist. It’s madness.  They can put you away for that.  You either get paid or put away.’

 And towards the end of the day he admitted:

 ‘Writers are allowed to steal anything. If it is nailed down, get a crowbar. There is no copyright on lines of dialogue or ideas.  You can steal anything.’

 No wonder no one’s Mum wants them to be a writer when they grow up – it’s nothing to do with hanging on the fringe of dubious society or the non-existent pay cheques.  Writers wind up being thieving mad people.  Personally, I cannot wait.

After a second workshop by John Harman, I was able to extend the notion that writers are ‘thieves and mad people’ to include the proposition that writers are also promiscuous Machiavellian bastards who can defy the laws of physics.  Cool hey.

He told us:

Figure out the worst thing possible you can do to your hero, and do it. Show them you are a bastard as an author.  You’re meant to be.  You are God. You have become Machiavellian.

 John was explaining the concept of chiasmus, the Greek word for cross, where the story reverses on itself.  Such as ‘what matters is not the men in my life, but the life in my men’ or ‘You do not live to eat, you eat to live’. He told us that we must constantly be looking for ways to reverse the story and, if possible, torture our protagonist by putting them in situations that would put them under complete and utter duress.

His complaint about first time writers was that we are all too nice to our heroes, and very rarely want to hurt them.  Imagine how lame ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would have been had Shakespeare decided to let them live happily ever after.  Why is this story one of the greatest of all time?  Chiasmus.  The story starts with our protagonists alive but apart, and finishes with them dead but together.  Neat.

Then we were told:

Writers are promiscuous.  We are writing one story but we keep thinking about another.

 Finally he concluded:

 Writers are not subject to the laws of gravity.  If you are an architect you must start with the foundations or your building will fall down. A writer can start anywhere: the middle, beginning or end.

 I think the key though, is that writers need to actually start. And once they start (as is particularly true in my case), they need to continue.

 

I Write, Therefore I Am

Tonight I went to the first Perth catch-up of the Australian Writers’ Centre. It was rather late notice, but 22 Perth writers found themselves in the middle of the city on a Friday night, in a reluctant circle, drinking wine.

We were a mixed bag. Young, old, novelists, ex-journos, bloggers. Published, unpublished. Enthusiastic. Jaded.

Like kids on the first day of school we went around the group introducing ourselves. I was first. I hate going first, but it’s better than going last, where you cannot focus on what others are saying because you are too concerned about what you are going to say, and not sounding like a complete moron.

One man observed it was ironic there was a public speaking component in a writers get-together. For many of us, we write because we cannot speak. For others, it was an opportunity to talk. A lot.

For the rest of us, peering around the room at our peers it was an opportunity to come up for air, get out from behind the solitude of the computer screen and interact in the world we write about. Hands were shaken, business cards swapped.

What we all had in common, apart from a distaste for travelling to the city, was a reason for being.

We were writers.

The only qualification you need to be a writer, isn’t a qualification at all. You don’t need a university degree to be a writer. You don’t need to be published to be a writer. You don’t need to earn a living to be a writer. (These things do help though).

You merely need to write.

I still stammer sometimes when I tell people I am a writer. I trip over my words, like I am a small child playing make-believe. ‘I am a princess,’ my three year old tells me, merely because she is wearing a plastic tiara. She believes it, so she is.

I write, therefore I am.

Welcome to my new blog: a writers blog. If you’re interested in being a parent maybe head to Relentless or if you like food then taste a bit of Meat, Three Veg and a Bottle of Wine. But if you are interested in the art of writing, then stick around… maybe you can teach me something.