“Modify” or “When Word(smith)s Fail”

So, I was chatting on the phone with my bestie-forever-and-always (the one and only Tirzah “Ink Caster” Duncan, of course), and one of us (I forget which, now) found herself groping for a word meaning “to change in form or character; alter”. We eventually settled on “modify” as the verb that would most neatly suit, but it was a long, awkward road to get there. And henceforth, it has been a running gag of my character Bruno’s to suggest “modify” as the word we’re searching for, never mind how close or way off base the suggestion may be.

            One might think that one who does a lot of reading and writing would, more often than not, have the perfect word on hand for any situation. Well, one would be wrong. Teasingly on the tips of our tongues, sure. On hand, not nearly always. An extensive vocabulary can prove itself a curse as well as a blessing.

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            …The worse you feel when the one word you want is hiding behind a jumble of inappropriate others. It’s not so terrible when I’m writing, because I can always take a timeout to turn to the dictionary or thesaurus for aid – a habit of mine that’s best used in moderation during a literary sprint like NaNoWriMo, but otherwise quite helpful. Verbal conversation, however, is a different story. With next to zero time to edit, I’m left scrambling for words that will even quasi-accurately convey what’s going on in my head. (Of course, half of what’s going on in my head is gobbledygook anyway, but it makes no difference: I want that gobbledygook expressed just so.)

            So, what do you do when you’re caught in the headlights of a conversation with the perfect word nowhere in sight?

            Um, uh, y’know, like… shoot, hold on a sec… *elevator music plays* Leave your audience hanging. It’s not like they have anything better to do than wait for you to get yourself together; life’s long enough. And you just know this pointless anecdote will be well worth the ten-minute intermission. Everything you say is gold, because you take the time, however painfully long, to ensure that it is so.

            Fake it ‘til you make it. Just use made-up words to hold your place or distract from how inept your mouth is being today. Necessity was the mother of the invention of words such as “whatchamacallit”, “doohickey”, and “thingummy”. Rather than accept defeat, turn this oral failure into an opportunity to coin the slang of tomorrow!

            Settle. Maybe the word you meant will reveal itself in the next minute, or pop up out of nowhere half-an-hour after it’s lost all relevance. Maybe the word that kept slipping just out of your grasp never meant what you’d thought it did anyway. Maybe it just doesn’t matter as much as you feel it does and you should simply allow some lesser synonym to take The Great Granddaddy of All Words’ place because, for pity’s sake, your audience is aging! Talk around it. Make do with what your brain’s willing to provide. Let go your impossible ideals and adjust your speech to fit your current limitations.

            Because sometimes, even we wordsmiths (or especially we wordsmiths) just need to know when to cut our losses and modify.

“Q and A”

Fun news, Ever On Wordians: I was extended the honor of writing a guest post for a fellow blogger! (A brief pause whilst I indulge in some excitement-induced hand-clapping.)

In recognition of my knack of harnessing authorial schizophrenia to further my creative ends, Andrea S. Michaels requested a piece on how to engage in meaningful dialogue with one’s fictional characters. It was my pleasure (along with my minstrel’s, my fox’s, my Dream World Deliverer’s, and my tailor’s) to oblige. Hop on over to Andrea’s blog via this lovely little link, and be sure to give my host some love while you’re in the neighborhood. (:

Edit: Should the day ever come that the lovely little link fails (Aragorn insists that it is not this day, but it could be that he’s referring to something else), I’ve included the full “Q and A” piece below. Enjoy!

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“Oh, Author…” (This generally said with a pitying sigh, or perhaps merely a condescending headshake, on the part of my minstrel marvel, Gant-o’-the-Lute.) “Wherever would you be without me?”

I usually try to get around answering that question, on the grounds that the asker’s ego doesn’t need the boost. But the fact is, my writing truly would be worth little without the characters who live the books and, thereby, give them life. The characters make the story, and the author makes the characters (…with “the usual exception” of Gant-o’-the-Lute who, I swear, half-created himself). It is imperative, then, that We the Authors of the World, in Order to form a more-perfect-than-not work of Fiction, do our darnedest to make our characters seem real.

“What’s real in your world about a talking, five-foot-five, practically primatial wild fox in a top hat?” questions Glyph, with a lazy swish of his bright, bushy tail.

Well, of course I didn’t mean “real” in the “being or occurring in fact or actuality” sense. We’re talking fiction; reality need have little place here, but realness is requisite. Therefore, the characters must come across as the “genuine and authentic” sort of real to the readers, which is easiest done when they feel that sort of real to their authors.

So what do you do when you just can’t seem to get a sense of who your characters are? When their innermost hearts are closed to you? When you have no idea how they would react to that wild plot point you plan to throw at them in Chapter Seven because you don’t know what makes them tic? That’s when it’s time for a little Q and A; an author/character chitchat.

“An interrogation under a hot bulb, with everyone and their secondary antagonist sniggering from the other side of the two-way mirror,” grumbles Bruno, because he’s a Mr. Sunshine type o’ teen, like that.

As Bruno’s grousing demonstrates, not every character will be eager to bare their souls to you. Something broad and open-ended like “So, tell me about yourself” may not yield the sort information you were hoping to get. For your more reluctant charries, I would recommend you take a more organized approach. Get together a list of specific questions, and tackle them one by one in a thorough interview. My preferred resource? What I call The Anything and Everything Character Questionnaire.

“…Of doom,” my tailor Edgwyn adds, in the laughing, extra-deep version of his otherwise baritone voice that signifies he’s looking to amuse.

It’s not actually meant to be doomful (despite what Bruno would have you believe) – although, I admit, some questions can be inherently awkward, or else lead unexpectedly to some pretty painful stuff. I’ve had characters break down crying mid-quiz, or storm off in a rage that only a few hours’ timeout could lessen. When you’re talking about anything and everything from their first memories, to their sense of morals, to their love life, you really never know what’s going to come up. And that’s the beauty of it: Just letting your characters talk, and learning what their words reveal.

You could unearth bits of backstory you’d never thought to imagine (for example, extracted from Glyph’s turn at the questionnaire):

Most Prized Possession and Why: It’s bound to be that hat again.

“Because it’s important,” Glyph says. “It was to be my first ever hat, and the payment the spider wanted for it was a damselfly, because her webs had never once caught a damselfly, and she’d grown terribly curious about how one would taste. So I set out to catch the required damselfly, and found one being pursued by a dragonfly. And I decided that I would rather save the damselfly, and kill the dragonfly, and give it to the spider instead. So I did, and she was most excited (because, of course, dragonflies are bigger than damselflies), so I got my hat, and I got Jewel.” (His damselfly sidekick.) “A very good day.”

You could discover secret desires that are a fundamental part of the character’s makeup (e.g., from Bruno’s session):

If Granted One Wish, What Would it Be and Why: “Oh, boy, I get a wish,” he says with lackluster glee. “…I wish that American cheese was actually cheese.”

Or you could watch in amazement as various answers work together in such a way that you’re almost looking at a short story within the dialogue (which would take too much space to illustrate here, so I’ll just hope I’ve managed to build up enough credibility in your eyes that you can take my word for it). And these mini dramas can serve as inspiration for other short stories, or even for new novels. (For goodness’ sake, I hadn’t been planning to write a sequel for my “Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale” until the rich storylines within various Merry Men questionnaires drove me to it!)

Getting to know your characters is one of the best things you can do for your stories. More than that, turning your author/character relationship into one of friendship just makes for a more rewarding experience all around. Isn’t that so, Lute old buddy?

“Oh, absolutely,” he says, tone suggestive of humoring a mental patient.

Ah, well. What’s the life of an author of fiction without a little harmless delusion?