The Art of Choosing Words Carefully–Contest

At one time, scientists believed that the human taste scale could only distinguish four flavors–salty, sweet, bitter and sour–and that from that minimalist scale you could distinguish pizza from pasta, ice cream from lemons.

Today, they are claiming we have a wider range, perhaps as many as 20 or more to help us form our gourmet appetites, create our magazines full of new recipes each month, or go into the Top Chef Restaurant Wars. How can this be?

Heart Hands - Few digits-infinite message

Few digits-infinite message

Like flavors, the romance language speaker has a limit of 26 letters to work with in communicating all levels of emotion, imagery, conflict, and information.  Yet for centuries we’ve done just that.  Do you have a favorite letter?  How ’bout a favorite word?

I love words.  Wouldn’t be a writer, I guess, if I didn’t.  When I write I don’t mind the editing process because there is always a word or two to look up and play with.

When my nieces and nephews graduated from high school, I used to buy them Webster’s Collegiate Dictionaries as part of their graduation presents.  This was, of course, in the days before personal computer ubiquity, and tablets, and smart phones, and whatever the next generation of incredibly powerful yet minute size computing will exist.  But a good dictionary is important to have and to play with.  Even for this blog post I’ve looked up a few words already.

Here’s my point.  Precision in word choice is both a game and an important part of story-telling.  Connie Willis gave a talk at an RMFW Colorado Gold writing conference a few years ago where she talked about an author who wrote a story about a submarine adventure in World War II.  She quoted the story dialogue–“Dive! Dive!” said the captain into the thingy.”  We in the audience roared our appreciation.  We got it. Not that “thingy” isn’t a perfectly fun word to use, but this example shows the importance of precise word choice.

This week, I came across a very good writing prompt, in Story Engineering, the book I told you about a few weeks ago.  Larry Brooks works from the premise that people are driven by resentment.  He says, “We resist that which we resent,” and goes on for a few pages about how this resentment gives us motivation for revenge, and sets up some great story opportunities as a result.  Then Mr. Brooks asks his reader to try an exercise in resentment:

“Make a list of all the things in your life, both close and at arm’s length, that you resent. Then notice how that resentment influences your attitudes, behaviors, and decisions toward people or things. Pay attention to how each entry makes you feel. And then, in turn, how it may influence how you act.”

Can you write a story between two people who resent each other?  Will the conflict they act on be a mountain or a mole hill that represents years of resentment?

Here’s where word choice comes into play.  Mr. Brooks used the word “resent.”  He could just as easily have said, “begrudge,” or “hate,” or “loathe.”  But the word “resent” was his choice, and the part in the dictionary written in parenthesis is what made the lightbulb come on for me:

“resent: to be angry or upset about (someone or something that you think is unfair).”
Thanks to Merriam-Webster Dictionary for this definition.

The second I saw the word “unfair,” all the feelings from preschool on where I felt angry and victimized came forward.  I might easily have stumbled in this writing exercise if I hadn’t had a precise definition for the word, “resent.”

And now for the contest part . . .

Here’s an idea.  Why don’t you do the writing exercise Mr. Brooks suggests, then write a short story (800 words or less) to send to me?  I”ll try to select a story to publish on this blog with the “winner’s” byline, and send a press release about the contest and your story to a few publishing contacts. You never know.  You might be the next Ogden Nash.

Okay, so every contest has rules, and here they are:

  • Be original–no copying from somebody else’s stuff
  • Be brief–absolutely no more than 800 words (title excluded)
  • Be broke–sorry, I don’t have any give away items or money for this contest
  • Be on time–Deadline is June 9, 5:00 pm mountain time.
  • Be resentful–No, you don’t have to use the word “resent,” but it must show in the story. Choose your words carefully.
  • Be happy–this isn’t a big contest with awards, fame and fortune.  We’re just doing a writing exercise together.  Have fun with it.

Good luck with this.  Have a wonderful writing week.


Marijuana at a Dental Conference

It may be weird, but I think conferences and trade shows are great fun.  I’d never miss Colorado Gold for writers; so many people to meet, so much to learn and so many spirits lifted. I love the buzz and excitement of it all, right down to the heavy, not-so-good-for-you food, the wads of business cards exchanged and the empty promises of friends forever feelings.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when my daughter invited her dad and I to the California Dental Association conference this past weekend, I had my bags packed as quick as a snow melt in July.  And I was well rewarded for my enthusiasm.

Yes, the trade show floor was filled with drills and explorers and other scary looking tools of the trade, but there were very nice people there to show that dentistry, like every other industry, evolves more each year. While dentistry may remain the appointment you most want to procrastinate about, dentists themselves are highly regarded in our society for good reason. They work hard every day to ease pain and help patients with better oral health.

And that brings me to a selfish reason to have enjoyed the CDA. One of the talks was called “Recreational Drugs: Windows into our Brains?” by Bart Johnson, DDS, MS, and director at Seattle’s Special Care Dentistry office. Dr. Johnson made it clear at the beginning of his talk that, one, he lumps alcohol and tobacco into the “recreational drug” category of things we consume and two, he stands against recreational drug use.  This worked well for me, in my research for the next Daisy Arthur story, Pot Shots.

Dr. Johnson didn’t come across as any goody-two shoes kind of person.  He had a well-developed sense of humor throughout his talk and used personal anecdotes as well as textbook information to tell his side of the drug story.  I particularly tuned into the Marijuana section, when he admitted to having tried the stuff–once.  He took a couple of hits from a bong and started writing poetry, which was so bad he was afraid of someone reading it, so, instead of wadding it up and throwing it away, he took it to the kitchen sink and lit it on fire.  Then he went back and wrote another poem with the same results.

This demonstrates one of the negative side effects of marijuana use–paranoia. Some of the other things that I learned from this talk:

  • Marijuana has approximately 450-500 chemicals as part of the plant, and of those 23 are psychoactive–although most people focus on something called Delta-9 THC as the main psychoactive ingredient.
  • The plant has both male and female versions, and only the female version has psychoactive drugs in them.
  • Marijuana is more damaging to the lungs than tobacco cigarettes because the combustion temperature is so much higher. And if you remove the temperature problem by using a bong, you’ll have more Delta-9 THC hitting your lungs because it it lipid soluble, not water soluble.
  • Marijuana use creates a distortion of time and space.  His slide on this subject showed a gruesome result of driving under the influence.  A young person in an orange t-shirt was decapitated in a car wreck while driving under the influence.
  • This is the biggest thing that hit me–children ages 14 to 16 are the peak market of first use.  The challenge here is that while this group of people’s brains are still developing, they are using a drug that inhibits learning, movement, and memory.  The marijuana also creates an “amotivational syndrome” or apathy in people who use it.

There was a whole lot more to Dr. Johnson’s talk, complete with scientific names and chemical drawings, but my brain filled with his passion for the subject and obvious concern for the well-being of others. Cool, very cool.

Next year, I hope to go to CDA again.  Maybe I’ll squeeze into the session on forensic dentistry. Can’t wait!

P.S. Sorry for the lack of photos today. I forgot to take any!! Shame on me.


Collecting Characters From Life

I’m really excited. This weekend I am going to a dental conference! No, really. I am excited. I’m going to go see who’s who and what’s what with dentistry.  Now, why should I be all aflutter about this?  In a word–collecting.

Woman In Paddington

What does this chic woman have on her mind? There’s a story here.

People collect all sorts of things, from rocks to rock band ticket stubs, or stamps to stickers.  I like to “collect” people.  Sometimes someone pauses in an interesting pose, dressed to stand out in a crowd. Photo op. Other times people will share a life story with me. Journal time.

I don’t manage to snap all the photos I’d like, nor do I write down every story I hear, but in writing I feel that people are my business as much as any word strings.  The human story is played out in the everyday world around us. Artists collect, sketch and paint the everyday continuously too.  Florals, still life, landscape. These are classics that never go out of style. In writing, who wants to read about rocks unless there is a rock collector to go with them?

People flit about in my life, like birds on a spring morning.  They may be in their own, to them unexciting routines, but when they touch my life there is something new going on for me, and I love experiencing it.

Man In Paddington

Buying flowers at a train station? Making up or saying good-bye? What would you write?

What do I take note of?  That’s easy. Whatever’s interesting.  A scrap of trivia from an expert in an interview expands my own knowledge (which I am all too eager to share), and when I hear a personal story, I’m right there with the teller.  This is part of why I cry easily.  I hear someone’s pain, and I feel it myself.  But I also have a wicked sense of the ironic, and I can visualize someone’s personal foibles extended out so that I must laugh.

Did I tell you that the vet has started to call me, just to see “how Prophet is doing?”  I think they spell my dog’s name differently, and apply it to their practice.  Could you imagine a vet who called his or her “regulars” just to plant the seed of paranoia? “Hello, Ms. Jones. How’s little Phoebe today? Did you know that a lot of cats are suffering from ringworm this time of year? Just thought you should know. Please look for these symptoms on Phoebe and let me know how she’s doing…” Oh the wicked fun I could have with that one!

Now, in all honesty, I’m not as great at collecting people as I intend to become.  I started my collections notebook a couple of years ago, and it’s still pretty blank.  This is because I haven’t made enough time to be faithful to the journal.  And when I think of someone I want to write about, I’ve often misplaced the darn thing, so I don’t write anything down.  Hmm. Not good for someone who likes to write stories.

Walk A Mile In Another's Shoes

Walk A Mile In Another’s Shoes – then write their story.

One solution is to start keeping my Collections work on my iPad.  I really enjoy using that tool for jotting down scraps and starts.  And I’ve learned how to group documents so that I can actually find them again. What a novel idea. I think one day a short story on the genius who lost all his or her files into a black hole of messed up computer files might be fun. He or she keeps drilling down into the folders but can’t find any work done to date.  And each drill may have a sound go off in our protagonist’s head. A sound like . . . a dentist drill!

Ooh! I can’t wait for this weekend.

Hope you have a wonderful week.