Category Archives: creativity

Xmas Gifts for Writers: The Journal of Infinite Possibility

img_6469It’s only November, I know, but Christmas is coming anyway, with all the inevitability of sunrise, vampires in fiction, and a writer’s need for either coffee or wine (or both).

Speaking of writer’s needs, here’s a really neat gift idea for the writer in your life. Whether they’ve got thirty books under their sparkly belt or they’re still experimenting with style, form and pen name, you can’t go wrong with an inspirational journal.

And oh look, here’s one that Clan Destine Press prepared earlier!

The Journal of Infinite Possibility is a gorgeous little journal indeed. For a start, it’s full of pages waiting to be filled!

Mind you, the creators of this journal are writers and artists themselves and well know the terrifying tyranny of the blank page. That’s why the pages here aren’t exactly blank.

img_6463Instead, every page of The Journal of Infinite Possibility contains a picture, a quote, a prompt. Places to doodle when the words aren’t wording, images to colour in when doodles aren’t even doodling.

Actually, there’s plenty of space here for artists as well as writers, or for those scarily talented people who do both! They’ll certainly be inspired by the gorgeous covers and corner illustrations by Sarah Pain, Ashlea Bechaz, Vicky Pratt, Loraine Cooper and Ran Valerhon! (Two of that august list have created covers for my books with Clan Destine!)

img_6470A few of the pages are shown in part here so you can see how gorgeous this whole package is. The only real danger is that the writer who gets this won’t want to ink up the pretty pages. But ink it up, folks! Make it messy and crazy and bursting to full with your own  ideas sparked by these words and pictures and blank spaces just begging to be decorated with words, lines, lists, scrawls, sketches and the seeds of something bigger.

What the hell. Don’t get it for some other writer. Get it for yourself.

It’s what I’ve done.

The Lady Novelist Travels in Time

ttmart (1)Tucked away on West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, in an area called Echo Park, is a very special little shop. Time travellers, whether planning to visit the distant past or the distant future – or to bounce around between the two – will find anything they need at the Time Travel Mart. Era-appropriate facial hair; jars of nanobots; barbarian repellent; communist soap; viking odorant; robot emotion chips; or tins of mammoth chunks. The Time Travel Mart has it all.

The Mart is a vastly entertaining location, filled with items sourced from toyshops but also made especially for them. No opportunity for a witty time-travel joke is wasted, so you’ll find delightful warnings and notices posted up all over the space, in between the cans of Primordial Soup, candles for the patron saints of time travel (Hawking, Einstein and Mallett), robot milk and leeches.

Of course, like all the best odd, time-travel-related emporiums, the Mart is just a front for another organisation!

In fact, Temployee of the monthhe Time Travel Mart in Echo Park (and its sister store in Mar Vista on Venice Boulevard) are both fantastic little fundraisers and workshop spaces for 826LA, a non-profit literacy organisation, which supports school students from six to eighteen with writing skills.

The Employee of the Month board at the back of the store is full of fake pictures and dates, but the names are real: backers of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart have included JJ Abrams, Judd Aparatow and the late Melissa Mathison.

It’s a wonderfully funny and imaginative way to raise funds for a program to encourage and nurture writing. It’s doubly fabulous that the students taking part in 826LA get their work collected and published in little booklets sold within the store.

swagI picked up Vinyl has Aged Over Time and So Have We, a collection of poems, short stories, film reviews and essays by a 2016 class of students from the tutoring program. It includes the poem from which the title is taken, written by Michelle Garcia, and the entertaining An Era of Decay by Javier Hernandez, set in 2025 in which Superior Clinton has banished the consitution in favour of the Rights of Man, Woman and Child, and got rid of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the Kardashians while she’s at it.

As if the Time Travel Mart wasn’t delightful enough, the 826 project operates similarly entertaining shopfronts throughout the USA. In Brooklyn, there’s a superhero supplies store; Boston has supplies for Bigfoot hunters; San Francisco can outfit pirates and in Chicago there’s the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Company.

If you’re in Australia and cursing your inability to get to the US to take part in the fun and support literacy, the good news is that you really only have to get as far as Sydney. Martian Embassy is the shopfront supporting the Sydney Story Factory, which runs free creative writing and storytelling workshops for kids aged 7 to 17.

Looks like I have a new shop to check out next time I’m in Sydney!

In the meantime, if you want to support the project, visit the Time Travel Mart’s online shop.

Turning to the light

celebrate-954787_1920“I learned something recently,” my friend Wendy said to me during her visit to Australia. “Some things are just big black piles of shit, and they’re everywhere, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about that, so sometimes you just have to turn your back on it. You have to face the other way. Towards the light.”

We were talking about how much rage we both carry in us, about discrimination and harm in the world, in all its many forms. We’re both prone to shoutiness in this regard. (Actually, we’re as prone to joyful shoutiness as ragey shouting, and I’ll come back to that.)

Wendy is absolutely correct. Many of the things that reduce us to rage and despair and shouting are heaping mounds of stinking, fly-blown ordure. The comment trolls spitting venom online; misogynists making rape threats against women who dare to have a voice; bigots spewing venom about refugees and the queer community. Gunmen full of fear and hate. Hypocritical leaders who condemn the violence while encouraging discrimination through legislation and denial of human rights, thereby creating environments in which hate is allowed to flourish through tacit agreement that these or those human beings are only second class.

Wallowing in the mire

The trouble is (well, one of the troubles is) that too often, we get caught up with those mounds of excrescence. We go and read the comments; we share the awful and cruel things that someone just posted and point at it saying I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS CRETIN SAID THIS THING! We give oxygen to the haters and let everyone know what the haters said and how outraged we are by it.

Basically, we run up to the big smelly turd and look at it from every angle, sniffing in the toxic stinking stinkiness of it, complaining the whole time about how AWFUL it is – and offering other people a whiff of the proof that such ugliness exists in the world.

Shovelling shit

And okay, sometimes there’s a good point in paying attention to the pile of poo. Sometimes, knowing that it’s there, it’s possible to pick up a shovel and start mucking out that particular stall.

It’s good and right to fight against this stuff stinking up the world. To lobby politicians to change the law, to add your body and your voice to the protest marches and the gatherings in support of vulnerable people – often those buried under that awful shit. That kind of presence and activity is incredibly important. Representation is important.  Whether you’re fighting for your own rights, or are an ally of those struggling for them, it’s good to be seen to be out there. Refusing to be silent is powerful.

It’s true, too, that some people siding with the stink piles simply lack information. Maybe they’ve never been challenged. Maybe nobody has ever gone through the issue with them. They’ve been surrounded by the stink so long they don’t know it’s possible to live in fresh air. So sure – engage with them if you believe you can win an ally from it. If there are people who are willing to listen, be willing to talk, to converse – not to browbeat but to share ideas that may be new to them. That’s a noble undertaking too.

Cutting off the air

But sometimes, paying attention to the haters is just lavishing attention on garbage. When we acknowledge what they say by paying attention to it at all, we’re giving oxygen to outdated and vile viewpoints. We’re feeding the trolls.

And it’s exhausting. It’s disheartening at best, soul-crushing at worst, to expend energy on arguing against people who have no logic to stand on in the first place. They won’t be turned into allies. They’ll just enjoy watching your blood pressure rise, and the fury in your eyes turn to despair and hopelessness at the awfulness of the world.

Sometimes, I think we’re at risk of making those smelly mounds of ignorance, fear, hatred and viciousness bigger and more important than they should be.

Sometimes we should note that there’s a stink and instead of sticking our faces close to inhale it deep and then rage about the stench, we should turn our backs to it and face the other way. Maybe they’re only heard because of the shouty rage that is spreading word of the awful thing they said. Deprive them of oxygen and attention. Turn away.

But don’t turn off.

Don’t shout down – lift up

If you can turn your back on the smelly, time-consuming, attention-demanding turds, you’ll see other things. Not necessarily sparkly rainbows and ponies. Brightness is in the world too, of course, but that’s not what you look for.

What you look for is those who, like you, are half broken by the awfulness of that shit that’s everywhere in life. Look for anyone who needs the air that got taken up by the stink you’ve turned your back on, and give the air to them instead.

Raise your shouty voice to say: I belong here too! Raise it to say: I deserve my space and I’m taking it back!

Raise your shouty voice to say: I hear you! I’m your ally – how can I help? I will fight for your rights too, because human rights are everybody’s business.

Spend your energies on listening and learning. Get behind projects and ideas and voices that counter the vile stenches, and lift them up.

Shovel the shit away when you can; but don’t roll around in it. Don’t stick your face in the fumes and make your eyes water with it. Don’t try to shout down the ugly voices who just love to shout back and never learn a damned thing, because they revel in the pain they cause.

Use your passionate voice to lift others who need lifting. Use whatever you have to encourage, affirm, support, and give and give and give to those who need encouragement, affirmation, and support. Help the ones who need lifting to be heard and seen above the miasma of the stink-makers.

Shouting joyfully

Wendy and I have taken to reminding each other of this choice we’re making. When we’re full of rage and distress and despair that there’s so much hate, we remind each other to turn our backs on it, and to try in whatever way we can to give something to the love, to face the light

To listen and to learn. To steal our oxygen back and breathe it – and sometimes shout it joyfully – into something that grows.

 

Image: Celestial by johnhain
CC0 Public Domain  

Cover Reveal: The Adventure of the Colonial Boy

Colonial Boy v smlDrum roll…..

…and here is the cover for my newest book, The Adventure of the Colonial Boy! It’s a Holmes/Watson romance for new UK publisher, Improbable Press, and is due out around the end of March, although pre-orders and perhaps the e-book will be available earlier. I’ll make another announcement when those dates have been set!

The cover was created by Bob Gibson of StaunchDesign. Huge thanks go to Wendy C Fries, Craig Hilton and Tim Richards, too, for assistance in coming up with a workable concept!

The Blurb:

1893. Dr Watson, still in mourning for the death of his great friend Sherlock Holmes, is now triply bereaved, with his wife Mary’s death in childbirth. Then a telegram from Melbourne, Australia intrudes into his grief:

“Come at once if convenient.“

Both suspicious and desperate to believe that Holmes may not, after all, be dead, Watson goes as immediately as the sea voyage will allow. Soon Holmes and Watson are together again, on an adventure through Bohemian Melbourne and rural Victoria, following a series of murders linked by a repulsive red leech and one of Moriarty’s lieutenants.

But things are not as they were. Too many words lie unsaid between the Great Detective and his biographer. Too much that they feel is a secret.

Solve a crime, save a life, forgive a friend, rediscover trust and admit to love. Surely that is not beyond that legendary duo, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson?

*

About Improbable Press

Improbable PressImprobablePress specialises in Sherlock Holmes romance and erotica, across both Victorian, contemporary and other historical settings.

Wendy C Fries – author of The Day They Met and also known for her erotic fiction as Atlin Merrick – is the new imprint’s acquisition editor. She also wrote the Press’s first book, The Night They Met.

Upcoming titles at Improbable Press include the anthology A Murmuring of Bees (to which I am contributing) and Atlin Merrick’s second novel, The Six Secret Loves of Sherlock Holmes. I’m about to start work on a second book for the Press, tentatively titled Framework.

nightIt would be wonderful if you liked Improbable Press’s Facebook page to keep track of the books and release dates – and to let us know you’d like to read Sherlock Holmes romance erotica, both canon and contemporary.

Me and the British Library: A Love Affair

IMG_0477When I went to the UK in 2014, I arranged to spend a week there on my own while husband, Tim, did some travel writing research in Europe. A key activity for that week was to get access to the British Library’s collection.

I duly applied for a Reader’s Pass so I could use the reading rooms. That process could only be completed in the British Library itself, so I set aside a morning and took my paperwork in and walked out a relatively short time later with my reading card.

I proceeded, over that week, to spend six of the happiest hours of my life ever spent in a public building.

I had ordered in advance a bunch of documents on the Frost Fairs that used to take place on the Thames when it froze over. I ordered books on folklore, too, but the frost fair documents? Those?

The British Library gave me booklets published in 1814 that gave an account of the last Frost Fair. It gave me great, weathered scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings from the 18th and 19th centuries about earlier fairs, including much more mundane reports not of the fairs but of the cost to London’s poor who froze and starved and died in those harsh winters.

I was excited and engaged and I wrote pages and pages of notes (in pencil only, in a hardcover notebook used expressly for this purpose) for a planned novel in the Kitty and Cadaver universe.

IMG_1027Naturally, when I returned to London for a three week trip in September 2015, I made sure that I would get more use out of my favourite souvenir. I ordered a whole lot more books in advance – more on frost fairs and folklore for the Kitty book; a chunk of stuff on 13th century London for the same series; a bunch of things on Victorian life, clothing and steamships for The Adventure of the Colonial Boy, due out next year. Of my 21 days in London this year, I spent part or all of six of them at the library.

There is something incredibly thrilling about getting your hands on a primary source document. There’s a gleeful joy in being allowed to see a 200 year old book, to touch it and turn its pages. There’s a kind of awed reverence in wondering how many hands touched these pages before me, how many minds have read what I’m reading, and in wondering what each person may have felt or thought or concluded from the text, given their own lives and times.

There are also surprises to be found – like the essays from 1891’s Ocean Steamships reading almost like a post from a modern travel blog. This extract is from John H Gould’s Ocean Passenger Travel, reviewing the most recent steamship developments:  “On the most unpretentious modern steamship there is room enough in the chamber to put up a small trunk and even other articles of convenience, and one may dress, if he takes reasonable care, without knocking his knuckles and elbows on the wall or the edges of his berth.’

Or these extracts from Travelling Palaces by AA Fletcher (1913).

IMG_0427 IMG_0426

IMG_0473The joys of the British Library go beyond its marvellous collection and the fact that they let you look at it. It’s a wonderful space, outside and in. The atmosphere is studious but also light; grand yet accessible; serious and playful. There are works of art within and without, including a chair that looks like a book weighted down by ball and chain, and a painting of bookshelves that makes your eyes turn inside out until you realised it not just trick 3D effect- it’s actually a sculpture.

The courtyard outside showcases all kinds of art too – it boasts a kind of summer house with surreal art at present.

IMG_0474 IMG_1023

 

IMG_1025Hell, I’m even so fond of the locker room (you can only take a clear plastic bag of your essential belongings into the reading room, and no pens – though you are allowed now to take photos of the texts for reference.)

Thank you, British Library, for letting me be one of the thousands of people who enjoy your pleasures every day. I’ll see you again soon, I hope.

In the meantime, I am eying off the State Library of Victoria and aim, very soon, to make her my primary mistress for primary sources.

And Then… : Support a new anthology from Clan Destine Press

and then...Clan Destine Press is putting together a new two-volume anthology of adventure stories! And Then… the Great Big Book of Awesome Adventure Tales is exactly what it says on the tin. A big book full of tales of derring do, swash and buckle, rockets and railroads, guns and swords, action and heroics and ALL THE EXCITING ADVENTUROUS THINGS!

My story, Virgin Soil – set in Melbourne in 1851 and full of dark magic, strange family, gold fever and a shapeshifter who can’t remember if he started as a man or a rat – has been accepted to the anthology!

I’m there in excellent company. Other great Australian writers appearing include Kerry Greenwood, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Alan Baxter, Mary Borsellino, Jason Franks, Jason Nahrung, Jack Dann, Amanda Pillar, Sophie Masson, Lindy Cameron, Jane Clifton, and Peter M Ball – for starters!

All the stories have some kind of Australian/New Zealand connection, and it promises to be two volumes of a rollicking good time. The stories will be illustrated by Vicky Pratt, whose art for one of the stories appears above.

Clan Destine Press is running an Indiegogo campaign to fund costs for author fees and illustrations – and it would be so wonderful if you could be part of that.

You can support the project for as little as $2, and there are a few stages (including rewards of 50% off the books) before the first where you are guaranteed an e-copy of the book at $20.

Of course there are higher levels of pledges too, which include choosing other Clan Destine titles, getting the And Then... volumes in paperback, getting And Then... merchandise, and for the highest levels – And Then… in hardcover, and special writing tutorials from writers like Alan Baxter, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Jason Nahrung, Kelly Gardiner and me!

Please support this great project – and the writers and artist included in it – with your love but also, if you can, your dollars. You’ll get something amazing in return. I promise.

You can find out more about the writers for the anthology, how funds raised will be used and all the different levels at which you can support the project at Indiegogo – just follow the link.

Support And Then… at Indiegogo

And thank you in advance for supporting Australian writers, artists and publishers (or at least thinking about it!

Melbourne Literary: Word and Way

Melbourne’s City Council has been promoting laneway art projects for many years. In 2002, artist Evangelos Sakaris created Word and Way in Heffernan Lane, a small street linking the ‘Little Greece’ of Lonsdale Street to Little Bourke Street’s Chinatown.

Word and Way features quotes from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu and Greek philosopher Heraclitus depicted as street signs.

The signs, affixed to bricks or jutting out from the walls, have become battered over the years but remain a fascinating excuse to pause and consider their meaning. Sayings like “I have searched myself” sit at the same height as shop signs and an advertisement for beer, while others sit side by side with real road signs.

Every time I walk past this little lane, I see the signs there. Some of them have weathered, and some have been spray-painted over, and therefore become part of the wider and more populist approach to street art and self-expression.

The koans and phrases still resonate for me though. It’s still a good excuse to stop in the middle of the busy city to ponder and contemplate aspects of life and how we approach it.

Sakaris has also created another text-based piece of art at the Speakers Corner in Birrarung Marr, the park beside the Yarra River.

A few years ago, I created the Melbourne Literary and Melbourne Peculiar apps in celebration of Melbourne’s standing as a UNESCO City of Literature, as well as some of the daggy, weird and downright peculiar things I love about my city. I thought I’d share the occasional entry from the apps. They are still available on both iTunes and Android, though they are no longer updated.

“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn” – a happy ending

babyshoesThere’s a story that does the rounds that Ernest Hemingway once wrote the shortest, saddest story every told, for a $10 bet.

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

I first heard that six word story when Mary Borsellino told of how she had found it so terribly sad that her friend, artist Audrey Fox, decided to subvert the gloominess of it. Since they both enjoyed monster stories, Audrey used that as an inspiration to illustrate the story in a way that gave it a happy ending (a version of which you can see here – Audrey redrew the picture for my blog!).

Of the picture, Audrey says, “I was really just using my imagination and thinking about what else the story could mean that wasn’t ‘sad baby tragedy’.”

That story, and the story of Audrey’s illustration, made it into one of Mary Borsellino‘s Wolf House books, from memory, but I’ve always loved that whole story-in-a-story

Now, the saddest part of this whole thing is that the Hemingway part of it isn’t true. Ernest Hemingway’s writing of the tragic six-word novel is an urban legend.

A very similar story actually dates at least to Hemingway’s own childhood, when a newspaper classifieds section titled Terse Tales of the Town published the item, “For sale, baby carriage, never been used” in 1906. Similarly worded stories popped up again every few years in newspapers.

Whether the bet with Hemingway ever happened (and if it did, whether Hemingway quoted this story deliberately) is unclear – but that version of the story is ascribed to literary agent, Peter Miller, who first told it in 1974 – after Hemingway’s death – and then published it in a 1991 book. It was just the latest in a long line of stories about that story, but it’s the one that stuck.

The idea of writing something so perfectly pithy over lunch is an appealing legend, but the perfection and pithiness of the six word ‘novel’ remains, whatever its origin.

I don’t think it spoils the tale to note that Hemingway didn’t create it. I love the fact that this little notion first popped up in 1906 (if not earlier) and proceeded to grow, little by little, acquiring embellishments as it rolled down the years, until it grew to the story of a dinner party and a bet and a writer of terse words.

Or until it grew to the story of terse words, a sad friend, and an artist who decided to turn the whole thing on its head.

It’s a great reminder that many stories never stop being told, and never stop growing in the telling. It’s a reminder that stories can mean different things to different generations and that sometimes, if you look at an old story in a new way, it can grow into a whole new meaning.

Sometimes with tentacles.

You can find some of Audrey’s art, and other art that she likes, on her Tumblr.

 

June 2015: The Mid-Year Review

upcoming Improbable booksWith the recent zhuzhing up on my blog, I thought it was time to do another of my Mid-Year reviews as a round up of what’s been happening this year, and what’s coming up in the next twelve months.

If you’ve come here from one of my other blogs, you’re aware that I’m trying to streamline all my social media (of which I have way too much) so that I can spend less time on social media admin and more time on writing the very many writing projects I have lined up like ducks at a shooting gallery. Or like tequila shots at the bar. (Either way, it’s going to be messy.)

So welcome to the new-look Mortal Words blog, where I will write about the usual writing/reading/Melbourne/travel/as-the-whim-takes-me stuff – and to which I will add posts on music, Kitty & Cadaver related projects, stuff related to romance and erotica (which I also write) and more stuff-as-the-whim-takes-me. I may also repost some of the posts from the other two blogs here, for consistency and linking purposes and the like.

The first bit of housekeeping news to share is that my publisher, Clan Destine Press, and I are in the process of changing the name under which I publish my romance fiction from NM Harris back to the full, real me – Narrelle M Harris. Apart from the extra social media work generated by the split, we figured that since I usually write very action-oriented plots for my romance and erotica, it’s not really that different from my usual work (except raunchier in parts).

We’re also talking about getting some of my out-of-print work tidied up and more easily available too. I’ll announce those when the details are worked out.

TandB A Paying Client smallestSpeaking of my erotic romance stories – two have been released so far this year! The second story in the Talbott and Burns Mysteries, about the two-man Scooby gang of Elliot Talbott and his boyfriend Jack Burns was released in February. A Paying Client sees the lads investigating possible witchiness on behalf of their first-ever paying client, a housewife from Reservoir. Naturally, things don’t run at all smoothly.

BirdsFinal_v_smlIn May, Birds of a Feather was released – the first of the Hammer and Tongue series about Alice, an engineer, and her linguist girlfriend Nerida.

There will be more stories for both series in due course, and more for my sexy spy couple, Philip Marsden and Martine Dubois (including one set in Canada in the wilderness!).

I also had a short story, The Birthday Present, published in the Queermance 2 anthology, (last year, Late Bloomer was published in the first Queermance anthology). The anthology was published in partnership with the second Queermance Festival, held in Melbourne in February 2015.

(You can find buy links for all of those stories and my other books on the Shop page!)

I’m waiting on feedback before completing the final draft of my first erotic romance novel, Ravenfall – paranormal action adventure with vampires, precognitive dreamers, a fox spirit and a spate of murders. That one features James Sharpe, vampire, and Gabriel Dare, an artist.

ImprobablePressI’m also absolutely delighted that my pitch for a Holmes/Watson canon-era romance adventure set in Australia was accepted by new Holmesian imprint, Improbable Press – because queer readings of Holmes are not at all new, but a publisher for those kinds of stories is. The Adventure of the Colonial Boy will come out in 2016. Now to write it! If you want to keep track of that, and the other books being released (starting with The Six Secret Loves of Sherlock Holmes by Atlin Merrick, launching in October) you can Like the Improbable Press Facebook page. IP will run a variety of competitions, too.

EncountersKindleCoverIn Short Story news – my story Show and Tell will appear in a digital anthology, Encounters, later this year. I’ve also been writing short stories to submit to other anthologies, including Clan Destine’s And Then… due out next year. I’ll post as and when (I hope) those are accepted!

Alongside all of these projects, I have notes for more books (including a third book in the Gary and Lissa vampire series – I haven’t forgotten! – and a second book in the Kitty and Cadaver series).

Kitty and Cadaver itself is with an agent, but I am slowly working on scoring the melodies for the songs used in the book, and looking to collaborate with musicians to arrange, perform and record them. Already Ann Poore has done a lovely version of Gretel’s Lullaby on the harp. Those who were at Continuum 11 last weekend saw (and bought) the beautiful jewellery that was created from broken musical instruments, too.

omnivoreNot content with writing books, short stories and music – I’ve also been experimenting with design at Redbubble. I have a range of designs available, some of which include song lyrics, or personal mottos, or text relating to the romance writing (the Adventurous Hearts line).

And finally, I recently spent a few days in the Wimmera region of Victoria, visiting libraries and talking about Growing Up Reading or doing writing workshops on Killer Opening Sentences. But that’s a post for another time.

The Weasel-word Edit

weaselwordleWhen I’m writing a first draft, I use certain words and phrases far too much, trying to capture the image and tone in my head for the page. Some scenes play out like a movie in my mind’s eye and I end up too prone to minute stage directions, to expressions that qualify and prevaricate and waver where no such words are required. Sometimes, common grammatical functions in speech are a disservice in their written form.

When I edit other people’s work (which I do from time to time) I’m relieved to find that I’m not the only one who uses all that unnecessary verbiage.

But those extra words – those weasely, prevaricating, wishy-washy words that don’t add to the story, or worse, drain it of energy and impact – still need to be edited out.

Not every single example meets the Red Editing Pen of Death, though. Like all words, they are useful and important in their correct time and place.  The test for me is usually – can I take out those extra words without changing the meaning? Does the sentence have more impact/more truth with or without them? If deletion is an improvement, out it goes.

But what are these weasel words, exactly, and why do they make such a difference?

The Qualifiers

Words and expressions like: just, rather, probably, maybe, possibly, perhaps, a little, a bit, kind of and sort of all serve to diminish the intensity of the words around them. And sometimes that’s exactly what you want – particularly in speech, or in a person’s direct thoughts, because humans tend to tippy-toe around some ideas and prevarication is exactly what you want to convey.

But a lot of the time, that’s just you, the writer, not fully committing to the idea.  Here are a few example from my most recent novel-in-progress, Ravenfall.

  • James sort of shrugged. –> James shrugged.
    Really – what is ‘sort of’ about lifting your shoulders?
  • Gabriel hugged him a little harder. –> Gabriel hugged him harder
    Hugging is happening. Degrees of huggage hardness are not important at this point.

Filter Words

Suzannah Windsor recently wrote a blog about eliminating filter words, bringing my own focus closer to verbs about perception that can put distance between the character and the things they experience. Verbs like think, feel, look, see, sound

  • Michael in fact sounded far from astonished to hear from his brother. –>
    Michael was in fact far from astonished to hear from his brother.

    Saying that he only sounded unsurprised might suggest it’s a front. But Michael’s well used to his brother’s random and sporadic phone calls.
  • He felt the skin along his spine, his neck, his scalp, crawl with apprehension. –>
    The skin along his spine, his neck, his scalp, crawled with apprehension.

    He’s not simply feeling it; it’s actually happening to him. Remove the filter and his reaction is more immediate.

Grammatical Filler

In speech we often use filler terms at the start of sentences – commonly ‘there are/is/were’ or It is/was’. Most of the time, however, in these contexts ‘there’ and ‘it’ don’t refer to anything else. They don’t stand in for a known noun (though perhaps that’s coming up later in the sentence). Often, they only exist as a way to begin a sentence and they’re only putting more words between your story and your reader.

  • There are days when the shell is very thin. –> The shell is very thin on some days.
    Shorter, more direct, and it goes to the subject more quickly.
  • There are other interpretations to be placed on your visions. –>
    Other interpretations can be placed on your visions.

    Once more we are right into the heart of it, without the ’empty calories’ of a phrase with no direct reference.

Useless Extra Moments

I have a terrible tendency to say that someone ‘paused a moment’ or ‘considered for a moment’ or ‘waited a bit’. Frankly, pausing is already obviously only for a moment, so why weigh it down with more moments?

He paused, she considered, they waited – none of them need a second longer or any refining of their activity.

Padding Prepositions

English is a funny thing. One reason it has such range is our habit of adding prepositions to verbs to make whole new verbs. Pass up, pass out, pass something out, pass away and pass by all have very different meanings. These structures, called phrasal verbs, are really useful. Most of the time. But the difference between sit and sit down is minimal. Are you adding prepositions to verbs that don’t need them?

Also, sometimes characters look up or down or over or across at other characters and things, but the preposition isn’t always useful or necessary. If everyone is always looking up at everyone else, how can you tell who is the shortest?

Tics

All of us have our own writing tics. I tend to write people as nodding, turning, smiling, sighing and frowning way too often, so I search for those terms too, deleting any that are unnecessary or otherwise implied. They only get to stay if they indicate a shift in mood or status or their reaction needs emphasis.

The Weasel-Word Edit

When I have my first draft down and solid, I read it again and jot down words that are clearly overused, along with my regular weasel-word list. Then I search my word file. The number of times a word appears can be a huge surprise. I almost halved the appearance of ‘a moment’ from one draft to the next, and people only do a third as much frowning now.

Never Say Never

As you can see, I didn’t eliminate frowning or moments (or any other words or phrases on my hit list) completely. People are rarely so crisp in speech, so some of these terms still appear in dialogue when it’s appropriate to the character, situation and mood. A good deal of scowling, frowning and blinking still occurs. The story is full of vampires, werewolves, precognitive dreams and a flighty artist. Scowling, frowning and blinking are inevitable under the circumstances.

Don’t blanket-delete words from your list, because every word, no matter how weasely it sometimes appears, has its place in the scheme of things.

I’ve included a list of the words that I have on my weasel-word edit list. Perhaps it can help you to tighten up or polish your manuscript. The list isn’t definitive, so add your own tics and linguistic bad habits, and cross off the sins you don’t commit.

Happy editing!


Weasel-word list

  • a moment, a while, a little, a bit, sort of, kind of
  • just, rather, pretty sure, fairly, some, still
  • perhaps, maybe, probably, possibly, really
  • there are, there were, there’s, there is, it’s, it is, it was, does+verb
  • look, like, feel, felt, sound, seem, think, wonder
  • nod, smile, blink, sigh, frown, scowl
  • up, down, over, across, around

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.