Using a Thesaurus: Good or Bad?: 2013 365 Challenge #229

Can't have too many craft books

Can’t have too many craft books

Sometimes an idle reading of a blog post (or just about anything, to be honest) can lead me off on an hour-long internet search.

The post inspiring such a search today was Charlotte Rains Dixon’s post, Kaizen (Sort of) for Writers. I was drawn to the article because my husband used to have Kaizen days (Japanese for improvement or change for the better, according to Wikipedia) at a former place of work.

Charlotte’s post discusses ways that writers can introduce small changes for the better into their writing.

One of her suggestions was “Learn a few new vocabulary words” and included a link on ‘strong verbs’ which sent me off to read some of Charlotte’s posts from 2008 about improving writing using a thesaurus and a personal word book.

I use the online thesaurus in Word a great deal, mostly when I find the same word twice in a sentence (which happens often with something like ‘road’ – street/lane). As I edit my Claire instalments every day, and I am editing Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes at the moment, I seem to be searching for alternative words all the time. (And Word is often not much help!)

One of the many versions of Roget's Thesaurus

One of the many versions of Roget’s Thesaurus

Charlotte’s second post on the subject talked about a particular thesaurus called Roget’s International Thesaurus, which apparently arranges the words thematically (as Roget originally intended) rather than alphabetically. It sounded great, so I went off to find a copy to buy (not that I’m impulsive or need instant gratification or anything). There began my search, as that version appeared to be quite pricey and hard to come by in the UK. I started looking round for something similar, reading reviews to understand the differences.

Then I came across an essential review pointing out that International meant American. I already struggle with distinguishing between English and American spelling, spending too much time with a dictionary to ensure consistency in my writing. The last thing I need is an Americanised thesaurus.

So then I started looking for other versions of thesauruses, reading reviews which appeared to mostly complain that the type was too small or the book too huge. Kindle versions seemed a good idea until I realised they aren’t always searchable.

And then I came across an article on Daily Writing Tips called Hint to Writers: Use the Thesaurus with Caution. It discusses the dangers of using a thesaurus too heavily, resulting in over-complicated writing or the use of words that don’t quite fit (not all synonyms are created equal). The article mentioned Stephen King’s advice in On Writing (paraphrased, I’m guessing), that‘wherever your vocabulary is at today is fine.’

The comments on this article were as informative as the original article and ranged from complete agreement to disagreement. Philip Dragonetti suggested that, “A Thesaurus is to be used only to transfer words from one’s passive vocabulary into one’s active vocabulary.” That’s exactly it: I know the words I want to use, but sleep deprivation and too much time spent watching Cbeebies, has reduced my vocabulary considerably since my student days.

One craft book I haven't read yet

One craft book I haven’t read yet

Another article that my morning of internet searching produced was called Is the Thesaurus Your Friend? This interesting post discusses how writers are divided over the value of the thesaurus (as I had already seen in the comments on Charlotte Rains Dixon’s post above).

The post’s author, K. M. Weiland, explains that, “Some consider it their secret weapon; others regard it as a crutch.” She goes on to cite Stephen King’s opinion from his 1988 essay, Everything you need to know about writing successfully – in ten minutes:

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

She explains that King believes the best word is the one which flows from our creative subconscious and if you have to look up a word you probably don’t know it well enough to use it.

I’m not sure I agree with that view, even from as celebrated an author as Stephen King. As I’ve already said, sometimes I know the word and can’t find it. My creative subconscious is working hard on the plot and story and isn’t too concerned with the words it uses to get the idea on the paper. As someone famously wrote (though my Google search has not revealed who – maybe even Stephen King!) A first draft is the version we write for ourselves.

I think Stephen King’s advice is about not using words we have never heard of, just because they’re a synonym for a word we do know. I would like to think writers wouldn’t do that, not least because if a writer doesn’t know the word, chances are the average reader may well not know it either, and so it ceases to function as a means of communication.

I’m still determined to get a paper thesaurus, although I might just wait until I find one kicking about in a charity shop. My sleepy brain needs all the help it can get. Besides, Stephen King probably has a much wider vocabulary than I do!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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Claire sat at the front of the coach and chewed her lip.

This is ridiculous. I feel like a twelve-year-old on a school trip, wondering if the boy at the back of the bus will come and hold my hand while we both ignore each other.

Since the kiss that morning, Neal hadn’t renewed his attentions. She could hear him somewhere up the aisle, entertaining his fellow travellers with an anecdote about a Soho nightclub at 2am. She knew if she turned around it would look something like the sermon on the mount, as the teenagers hung off his every word, as much impressed by his experience as snared by his charisma.

I should be flattered that he pursued me through the forest, although I could wish that he hadn’t. She could wish it, but did she? There was no doubt that it was flattering to have a man like him chase her down. If only she could figure out what he was after. Surely there were easier conquests.

There are probably a dozen girls on this bus only too happy to massage his ego, among other things.

Staring at her iPad, Claire tried to concentrate on the notes she was compiling on the morning’s activities. After the walk around the Ruakui Reserve, they had stopped for breakfast before heading to Rotorua. She’d managed to stay out of Neal’s way at the farm show and during the zorbing. No one was going to get her inside an inflatable hamster ball and throw her down a hillside.

Carl and Julia would’ve had a field day finding activities for me in this damned country. Everybody seems hell-bent on killing themselves one way or another. If it isn’t jumping off something it’s dropping into a hole in the ground or flinging themselves down a hillside. Crazy people. Crazy country.

Their next stop wasn’t likely to prove any better. Agroventures Adventure Park. I don’t even need to read the brochure to know I’m going to spend the next few hours hiding.

The only provocation Neal had offered at the zorbing place was a raised eyebrow.

Maybe he’s given up on his Chicken crusade and has accepted that I am, in fact, a coward.

Even as she thought the words she felt the heat rising in her chest. Why was it so hard to let a man like him think she was afraid?

*

“Right, peeps, here we are. Knock yourself out. There’s the jet boat, the freefall, the swoop, you can bungy or you can take on a friend in the Schweeb challenge.”

The driver grinned at them as they gathered in the car park. Claire felt like punching him and wished she’d paid more attention to the details of the tour before signing up. Surely there was a trip around New Zealand that didn’t involve being guilt-tripped into crazy adventures every five minutes. The old fogies tour or something. Although some of the people she’d seen climbing into the plastic zorb balls earlier that day hadn’t exactly been spring chickens.

“So, Claire. You and me on the Shweeb, how about it?”

Claire felt hot breath on her neck and shivered as the low voice penetrated into her gut. She drew air deep into her lungs before turning round. Neal stood far too close and she took a step back, causing his eyes to crinkle in amusement.

“I don’t even know what a Shweeb is. I don’t think it’s something I want to do with you.”

The primness of her tone made him chuckle and Claire cursed. That damned chuckle was going to be her undoing. It made her legs wobble.

“Come and see, fair maid. No contact required: just a straight fight, you and me. The loser buys dinner.”

He grinned and Claire felt a responding flutter deep in her stomach.

“Or if your muscles aren’t up to the challenge, you can always come swoop with me.”

Claire had seen the swoop. Plunging to earth in a sleeping bag with her arm wrapped round Neal’s was not going to happen, ever.

She wanted to walk away. The urgent message to her feet wasn’t getting through; they remained stubbornly stuck to the ground as Neal turned on his most sardonic stare.

“You’re the type of girl who does Spinning, right? An hour in the gym before work? This should be a doddle.”

Claire bristled at the accuracy of his barb. So, the Shweeb was a bike? How hard could that be? A quick glance down at Neal’s legs revealed the contours of an athlete.

The look didn’t go unnoticed and Neal put his hands on his hips before turning in a slow pirouette. “Like what you see? Think you can beat me?”

No. But, after all, it was only dinner. What harm in that? And she had to do something worth writing about on the blog. A bike ride sounded easy enough.

*

Claire looked up at the suspended monorail pods hanging like giant fruit on a silver vine.

Crap.

She traced the rail with her eyes, noticing the curves and corners and shuddered. Numbly following the chattering group into the launch area, she allowed herself to be guided into the glass pod.

“Your handle bars are there. The gears are here, click up and down. Stay in a low gear or you’ll burn your muscles beyond the point of recovery. Lean into the corners and good luck.”

Claire listened to the instructions as best she could through the buzzing in her ears. Glancing to her left she could see Neal grinning at her through the window.

The cage shook as someone slammed the door shut. Then she felt a shunt as she was pushed out towards the exit.

“Three, two, one, go!”

Claire almost forgot to peddle, but the forward momentum kick-started her legs without applying to her brain for permission. Clinging onto the handle bars she peddled furiously, muscles burning in reminder of the months since her last spinning class.

Just as she was about to relax and enjoy the physical sensation the pod swung out sideways, leaving her stomach somewhere behind on the curve. Claire swallowed the nausea and focussed on her breathing. She didn’t dare try and locate Neal, although she sensed the pods crossing over each other as the monorails weaved and twisted. Even though she knew there was no chance of beating him, Claire dug in as hard as she could.

Claire had lost all sense of how many laps she’d done, until she saw a flag waving to indicate it was her final time round. Dropping into a lower gear she pushed hard, determined not to be humiliated. She pictured the smug expression on Neal’s face were he to win and pedalled harder.

As the pod slid into the finish point, Claire let her legs drop from the pedals. Someone opened the door and Claire turned, relieved to be able to escape her torture chamber.

“Here, let me help you.”

Claire looked up into the face of her nemesis. His skin glistened, but there were no other visible signs of exertion. He’d finished in enough time to come and help her out her pod.

Bastard.

Ignoring the outstretched hand, Claire climbed out of the machine. Her knees buckled and she felt Neal’s arms around her, keeping her from falling.

“Good effort,” he breathed into her ear. “I believe you owe me dinner.”

He waited until she was standing upright, then brushed his hand down her sweaty back; leaving it lingering on her bottom.

Before she could protest he stepped away and was gone.

***

Don’t Force It: 2013 365 Challenge #185

Creativity in the garden

Creativity in the garden

This morning I read Kristen Lamb’s latest post about the Five common tactical errors in Self-Publishing:

I’ve read this before on Kristen’s blog, but it is always useful to have a refresher, and compare where I am against where I should be.

This is the list of common errors:

1. Publishing too soon (before understanding and honing the craft of writing)

2. No prepared platform (that is, author platform – blog/website/social media etc)

3. Believing that, “If We Write it They Will Come” (self-publishing doesn’t mean less work, but more)

4. Misusing FREE! (giving your book away for free without understanding the benefits)

5. Shopping one book to DEATH (instead of sitting down to write the next one. It usually takes 3 books to have any kind of success)

Giant paint pallet

Giant paint pallet

I agree with them all: Reading Class Act now, I can see why Mills and Boon rejected it. I sent it off way too soon. There’s so much back story at the beginning even I can’t work out what’s going on. I’m still working on the others, and learning painful lessons (like coming out of the KDP Select program with Dragon Wraiths and not selling a book for five weeks!)

The only bit I struggle with is a line she uses often (it comes here under point one): “Too many new writers do not properly understand the antagonist. They don’t grasp three-act structure, and most don’t have any idea what I mean when I mention POV, Jungian archetypes, or the phrase, “scene and sequel.””

Of course, I struggle with it because I have no idea about half those things, particularly the Jungian archetypes. I’m sure my writing would be better if I did (if I understood structure better, for example, I might be able to fix Class Act quicker). However, I think you could write a great novel without knowing what all these things are called. I know a reasonable amount about writing grammatical English but, until last week, I’d never heard of a comma splice. I have looked through my writing and, instinctively, I write to a three-act structure, I use scene and sequel and I at least understand POV, even if I don’t always use it well in my writing (Baby Blues is a prime example). 

Daughter's Masterpiece

Daughter’s Masterpiece

Before I get a hundred comments telling me I really need to understand these things – I know I do (there are some interesting posts on Jungian Archetype in the related articles below). I also accept what Kristen says, that self-published authors need to be better than traditionally published authors, to compete in the same field. I am working to get better, and I read as many writing craft books as I can fit in around my writing.

Another blog I read today, which reinforces point one (don’t publish too quickly), was over on Karen Woodward’s blog. Her post, Stephen King on Storycraft has a main message: Don’t force it.

When trying to pull a story together, wait until all the pieces click, rather than trying to make it work. I guess it’s the difference between learning scales and playing a concerto (Kristen uses music as an example of how you need to know the nuts and bolts of something to excel at it). You need to know the craft of writing, but you also need the story to flow (and these things, for me, can be mutually exclusive).

One of the great things about self-publishing is the ability to get a wide range of feedback on your novels, rather than waiting a year to find out why agents are rejecting it (assuming they even tell you.) So, yes, you can publish too soon, but you can learn from it too (I hope).

This evening I sat with a pad and pen, while Andy Murray played his nerve-wracking fifth set (I needed a distraction) and worked out an additional six scenes that should hopefully remove most of the pesky back story in Class Act. I’ve been musing on it all day and then it just clicked, without forcing it.

I don’t know if the story fits in a three-act structure or exactly who the antagonist is (harder in a romance than, say, a crime novel I think). I know it still needs a heap of work. But I really enjoyed reading it this morning: reminding myself who the characters are, and getting absorbed in the dialogue.

Now on with the work so I can hurry up and publish! Assuming my three books need to be in the same genre, I’ll only have one more to go to find success 😉

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire looked at her mother over the top of her mug of Earl Grey and waited for the interrogation. Her mother’s restraint thus far was beginning to unnerve her.

Perhaps it’s too early for the Spanish Inquisition stuff. Or maybe she doesn’t care that her youngest child just turned up on the door step at 7am when she was meant to be at a wedding.

She tried to remember if her mother even knew about Kim’s marriage. As she’d only found out herself a few weeks ago, it seemed likely that she hadn’t told her about it. I seem to have told all the wrong people all the wrong things.

Claire sighed, and wondered why her mother was being so reticent. I guess there’s only one thing on her mind. Deciding that was as good an opener as any, she set down the mug.

“How’s Ruth?”

“She’s okay. A bit low. Sky wants to be outside playing – now the nights are getting lighter – and she doesn’t have the strength to keep up with her. I think the poorly-parent novelty has worn off.”

Claire tried to read through her mother’s words, searching for the accusations. If they were there, her mother was adopting a subtler approach than usual. The only impression Claire got was of a tired woman battling on with the hand life had dealt her.

“I’ll stop by later, take Sky to that farm she kept raving about.” Claire recalled that she’d promised to take Sky there with Kim and Jeff, and hoped Sky’s memory wasn’t as accurate. She didn’t want to think about them, not yet. She waited for her mother to start the questions, but she had disappeared back into her own thoughts, head bowed.

“Mum, is it okay if I stay for a night or two?”

Her mother glanced up, and nodded, without speaking. Claire felt wrong-footed. In the still of the kitchen, she listened to the clock ticking until it felt like the countdown of a bomb.

The silence stretched like a gaping void, pulling her in. Oh, what the hell, she’ll find out eventually, even if she clearly doesn’t give a toss.

“It was Kim’s wedding yesterday. We had a fight.”

Her mother nodded again, without looking up.

“I’ve had an offer of work, which will mean going overseas. I came home to get my passport, and to talk it over with you and Ruth.”

Again the silent nod. Claire swallowed down an urge to scream.

“Mum, are you listening? I said I might be flying halfway round the world. Do you even care?”

Her mother raised her head at last, and Claire saw that her mother’s eyes were red and circled with dark smudges.

“Mum, are you okay?”

Her mother dropped her eyes again, as if making eye contact were too hard. She gazed at the table and twisted her fingers.

“I think your father is having an affair.”

And then she let her head fall on her hands, and her shoulders shook with sobs.

***

The Rain Came Down and The Floods Came Up: 2013 365 Challenge #77

Nice weather for ducks and dogs apparently

Nice weather for ducks and dogs apparently

My kids sing a song they must have learned from nursery. I don’t know it* and they only know one line but it’s definitely becoming the anthem of our winter here in the UK:

The rain came down and the floods came up.

They sing the one line, together with actions, over and over when we’re in the car, until I feel like I’m in a Stephen King novel.

*Turns out it’s called The Wise Man built His House Upon the Rock. And I thought it must be from a Noah and the ark song.

Don't think I fancy the river today Mummy

Don’t think I fancy the river today Mummy

We did indoor play again today, meeting up with an old friend and her family. It’s great to combine forces at these places so you can take it in turns to be the hamster in a cage. Taking the Daddies is even better because little girls love spending time with Daddies (it doesn’t have to be their own: Amber does adopt-a-daddy all the time. Sometimes with people we don’t even know which is a bit embarrassing).

It snowed heavily while we were tucked inside but it soon turned to rain and the roads were flooded as we drove to my parents’ house. If it keeps raining we’re going to be Oundle-on-sea (we’re on the edge of the Fens which, if you don’t know the UK, is a large area of reclaimed wetland. It’s very flat.)

At least the dog likes the wet weather. She is part labrador and has webbed feet so she loves being in the water. Normally she swims in the river but, when it’s swollen with flood water, she doesn’t fancy it. Instead she races up and down the flooded fields at high speed. I tried to take pictures but I only had my phone with me. But you get the idea!

Blurry Action Shot: Even Kara loves jumping in muddy puddles

Blurry Action Shot: Kara loves muddy puddles

We saw friends of ours out puddle jumping in the afternoon: the three little kids all in waterproofs and wellies. I felt guilty because we were watching our second movie of the day, wrapped up in the lounge. Our kids have had way too much screen time this winter. I don’t mind the rain but when it’s zero degrees outside that’s too chilly to get soaked! (They have colds, so that’s my excuse sorted).

Anyway, today’s installment is going to be written in the morning as I have a date with the Got To Dance final on Sky One tonight. I’ll be bereft when it’s over but I’m very much looking foward to the final live show.

P.S. We ended up watching the final with a small child asking questions all the way through. We made the mistake of letting her watch the Little Princess episode ‘I don’t want to go to bed’ at bedtime, which is all about a little girl who doesn’t want to sleep alone. Big Mistake. HUGE. We’ll have days of her not wanting to sleep alone now. Must delete it from the Sky Plus!

Never mind, the final was still great and the right person won. If you don’t watch it, check out the video of Lukas McFarlane’s first live performance. Awesome.

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Claire turned and studied the ornate building of Castleton Losehill Hall as she walked away from reception. I thought it looked like a gothic mansion when I arrived. I never imagined I’d be living one of Ann Radcliffe’s more lurid tales while I stayed here.

Meandering through the corridors and courtyards of the hostel that morning, with a bandage on her head and purple bruises on her cheek, it had been easy to picture herself in the pages of a Victorian drama. She’d ignored the giggling kids as she’d perched on a bench, lost in a nineteenth century world of mad counts and ephemeral ghosts.

Maybe Sergeant Cornhill was right, maybe I do have concussion. Claire tried to remember what the woman had told her the night before about the symptoms of a head injury. Confusion, inability to make decisions, tiredness. How is that any different to how I feel on any normal Sunday morning? Her laughter sounded fake even to her. Maybe I will pop in and see a GP before I head to the next hostel. Seeing as I don’t even know where I’m going today.

Claire stopped on the path and stared at the dirty-grey clouds scudding across the sky, strung out like dingy washing. What am I doing? I need to at least know what hostel I’m going to. Her only thought, after her morning of musing and wandering, was to get away and put the events of the previous evening behind her. Now the idea of driving past the scene with no clear intention or destination made bile rise in her throat. She hitched her rucksack up on her shoulders and headed back into the hostel. Maybe I’ll just have a quick look at the website, at least find the nearest hostel. I’m meant to have a quiet day today anyway, Sergeant’s orders.

Claire walked through the glass lobby and scurried to a corner before the manager on duty asked her what she was doing back. She wasn’t sure if she was allowed in the building after check-out and her head ached too much for a confrontation.

Within the space of a few minutes she had loaded the YHA site on her iPad, thankful that she still had it to plug the aching hole left by her stolen phone. The nearest hostel was apparently Hathersage. When Claire read the description she laughed loudly before wincing at the rattling pain it caused in her head.

A bustling Derbyshire village popular with everyone from fans of outdoor activity breaks to literature and history buffs. Walk the Charlotte Brontë Literature trail, taking in North Lees Manor featured in Jane Eyre and visit the oversized grave of Robin Hood’s sidekick, Little John.

 She smiled as she reread it. Well, I’ve lived the Gothic story, why not go and wander in the home of the finest Victorian novelists? Maybe I’ll meet the ghost of Heathcliff or the mad woman in the attic. Maybe I’ll be the mad woman locked in a garret. It might be nice to hide from the world for a while. Claire thought about the phone call she needed to make; the thank you that was going to stick in her throat like dry toast.

Yes, I think it might be nice to hide.

***