Sunday, July 06, 2014

Secret Word Duck - Use and Misuse of Million-Dollar Words

I've been reading a book called Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, by Jon Savage. I have never had to look so many words up in the dictionary as I read. It's positively giving me a complex. I've begun to wonder if I've lost more braincells than I thought in my middle-aged years. I'm all for expanding my vocabulary, but this book tosses around the million dollar words right and left without context clues, and often with no real justification for using the fancy word when a simpler one would do.

This makes me wonder about that small but potent animal, word choice. In my classroom, I talk about "juicy words." Juicy words are words you can sink your teeth into and savor, words that make the writing jump and sing, words that are saturated with voice. Sometimes, they are words that stand out.

Now, standing out isn't always a bad thing. When you're a diva singing a solo, standing out is your job. On the other hand, when you're singing harmony in a quartet, or you're part of a choral group, standing out is a problem. It's the same with juicy words. Sometimes, they should stand out and make the reader stop, ponder, take notice. In my opinion, this is especially true for poetry, descriptive passages, and certain moments in prose - moments that need to breathe or shock or freeze.

Juicy words aren't always the same as what my younger self would call "big words." Now, I LOVE to learn new big words. I love them best when they capture an idea that eludes my existing lexicon, when they lend brevity to a thought and make it clearer. I love them least when the distance they create between me and my reader, or, if I am the reader, then me and the text, is so great that it becomes the focus of attention, at the expense of meaning or narrative or the thread of thought.

In my opinion, Mr. Savage fell into the latter category in a few places. I have forgotten more of his million dollar words than I remember, and, frankly, I wasn't impressed with them enough to put them in my own toolbox. However, I shall credit him with adding  prelapsarian and ambit to my vocabulary.

"Prelapsarian" describes a state similar to the state of Adam and Eve before the fall. It is built of word parts that fit its meaning, and that I recognize ("pre" - before, and "lapse", as in a lapse of memory - a slip or fall). In one word, it captures a complex and resonant idea that carries with it a collection of cultural images and baggage. I like that about "prelapsarian."

"Ambit" refers to a sphere of influence. It carries the notion of how far something or someone's reach may extend. Best of all, and what I love about it, is that it is the root word of "ambition." This is interesting to me because I am, clearly, a word derivation geek. Plus, I love the idea that this root word is so simple in its structure that an early or struggling reader in my classroom could decode the basic consonant-vowel-consonant pattern of its two parts, and yet it is so underused and uncommon. Simple yet rare. Like an exotic orchid. Or a perfect kiss. Thinking about the relationship between this simple creature and its three-syllable, muscle-bound, popular offspring "ambition" creates a fascinating harmony of contemplation in my brain.

Juicy words. They come in all shapes and sizes. Use sparingly and wisely, with empathy and compassion for your reader and awareness of the impact on pacing and distance.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tending to the Neglected Zones

Call it end-of-the-school-year syndrome. My life as a teacher occasionally dwarfs everything else. That's what happened a few months ago. So I hit the pause button on revising and drafting and submitting and blogging and almost everything related to my ongoing pursuit of being a writer. Everything except receiving rejection letters. They're always in-season.

Now, summer vacation is here. I get to dramatically and emphatically shift gears and give my attention to neglected zones such as my garden and my writing (not listed in order of importance). The one serves as a pretty good metaphor for the other.

Neither has died of neglect. My garden is over-run and out of control. There are weeds everywhere, and blooms that have faded and need trimming, and empty spots that need filling, and furniture that needs refurbishing and rearranging, and yard art that needs sprucing, and debris that needs to be cleared away. And my writing? About the same. Nearly everything I submitted during the year has been rejected and there are almost no pieces out in the world. So, it's time to resubmit my finished stuff, and write query letters. Then, there's that project I'm working on for someone else that has been languishing in the recesses of my mind and now has a ticking clock. There's a thousand little ideas that have sprouted in the gaps and are clamoring for attention. Both my blogs are starved for posts. And there's the novel. It's the one thing I didn't drop, the one thing I kept giving time to as I let everything go, and even it suffered from a week or so without me. It's going to take time and work to get back on track, to find my rhythm and my purpose, to move past that overwhelming vision of all the work to be done, roll up my sleeves and get to it.

Time to reboot.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Rediscovering the Brilliance of Dr. Seuss

This month is Dr. Seuss' birthday, celebrated in elementary schools far and wide. Of course, in this era of short school years and pressures to meet the standards, it's a bit harder to manage a full day devoted to Dr. Seuss, with Cat-in-the-Hat hats and so forth. But I couldn't let the moment pass without some acknowledgment. So, I read YERTLE THE TURTLE to my students, and in the process I was reminded of how truly brilliant Dr. Seuss was.

We think of Dr. Seuss and we think of GREEN EGGS AND HAM, THE CAT IN THE HAT - fun rhymes and childlike simplicity. Those books manage to use words accessible to early readers without being dull as dishwater. Cat?  Hat? Can you think of any more basic rhymes? But that's part of Dr. Seuss' brilliance - the deceptive ease of his rhyme. Read it aloud and it flows, smoothly, effortlessly, from one idea to the next, the rhyme and meter giving the whole text this magnificent lift without ever getting in the way or collapsing into obvious rhymes and predictability. Have you ever tried to write in a Seussian rhyme scheme? It is anything but easy.

But the doctor's genius goes beyond his remarkable skill with language. His books are subversive, revolutionary, political. When I asked my third graders to identify the theme of YERTLE THE TURTLE, they didn't miss a beat. "If you have power," they said, "You shouldn't abuse it."  Think of HORTON HEARS A WHO, a statement about the power of one small person to make a difference in the world against the great and powerful. Think of THE SNEETCHES, a fable on the importance of diversity and difference. The BUTTER BATTLE, THE LORAX - time and again, Dr. Seuss dove boldly into the political arena via his children's books. No wonder. He started as a political cartoonist. And yet, despite the unflinching, often explicitly stated, morals of his stories, he never seems "preachy," a term we writers have been warned against in the strictest of terms when it comes to picture books. Somehow, Dr. Seuss is able, through his humor, his clever writing, his fantastical visions, to hurl these powerful morals at his readers without insult or condescension.

While I was reading YERTLE THE TURTLE, one of my students pointed out that Yertle really shouldn't be claiming he is king of a house and king of a tree and king of all he can see because nobody elected him. And just like that, we were connecting with current events in the Ukraine. The issue of rightfully elected leadership is at play there, just as it was for Yertle. Geopolitics emerges from a children's story about a turtle in a pond. That's the brilliance of Dr. Seuss. Happy birthday, Theodore!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

100 Rejections

A few days ago, I reached my personal goal of 100 rejections. I set this goal a while back as a way to embrace the fear inherent in submitting my work and take the sting out of rejections. I made a rule that all the submissions had to be in good faith, of course, to count towards my total. The 100 rejections represents a number of different pieces of writing, from novels to short stories to poems to picture books, so it's really still a drop in the bucket of what I know I must reach when you play the numbers game. However, I see it as an important milestone. And I plan on celebrating, though I'm not sure how just yet.

As writers, we need to set goals, goals we can control. I can't control what an editor or agent ultimately decides to do with my work, so I don't want to set a goal like "sell this many short stories" or "get an agent by such-and-such date." I CAN control how good the work is, how I decide which pieces to send where, how often I submit, how much I write. I can set a goal like "finish the revisions on this novel by such-and-such date" or "submit this many queries by the end of the year." I figured the only way to reach 100 rejections was to keep submitting, so really my goal was to keep submitting my work. And I did.

I wish I could say that along with these rejections I had some huge and monumental successes. Not yet. On the other hand, I did have some small but notable successes. I sold three short stories. I had a few pieces shortlisted. I had one agent and one publisher  who were incredibly complimentary of my novel. I had several pieces win recognition in contests of one sort or another. All of these kept me going.

Reaching any goal, no matter how silly or small, is a good time to stop and take stock. So, having reached my 100 rejections, I am taking stock. Where do I want to go from here? How do I want to push myself? What is a realistic goal? I know I want to finish the first draft of my dreamscape novel and finish the rewrites on what I'm calling my problem novel. I know I want to continue to create NEW short stories, to improve my "inventory" for submissions. I know I need to get better at the all-important and hated query letter. But what about a goal to push me to keep on submitting and not give up?

If I try for 200 rejections, maybe I'm giving myself too much permission to fail. Perhaps this time, I will set a goal for number of submissions. My 100 rejections represent 127 submissions. Those that weren't rejections and didn't result in an award (honorable mention, 2nd place, semifinalist) or a sale, are ones with no response yet, and perhaps no response ever. So, maybe my new goal will be 250 submissions. That seems like a nice round number. 123 to go.

What are your goals?  How would you celebrate 100 rejections and the determination, tough skin and hard work they represent?

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