Importance of Each Word

 

And … I’m back (after an inexcusably long hiatus)!

The following is an amusing +  true story that (spoiler!) demonstrates why word choice is important. Okay. That doesn’t sound like it will be funny, but read on….

I had been wandering through Costa Rica for nearly a month, practicing my Spanish, white-water rafting, touring beaches and rainforests, when I learned an important lesson regarding specificity. So considering I was there to contemplate life’s big questions, a lesson about precision was somewhat ironic. Yes, I was vacationing and having fun, but my ultimate goal was figuring out my future as a college grad entering the work force. And, I’m happy to say, it was on a beautiful mountainside hotel rooftop overlooking the unending Pacific, the glimmering dark water somehow melding into an infinity blanket of stars that reached back over my head, that I decided my role in the universe.

But that’s not the lesson I want to talk about.

About a week prior to my big epiphany, I had a boring yet fascinating conversation with a fellow American tourist. At first, it couldn’t have been more typical . . . except for his reactions to my answers regarding who I was and what I did for a living. His expression became confused, then amazed, and finally horrified.

Anyway, I had told him that after graduating from Sewanee, I moved back in with my parents for several months, working as a substitute teacher by day and as a waiter by night. But when I mentioned that simple, mundane, fact, his brow furrowed.

“Que?” he asked.

The conversation continued in Spanish, but roughly translated, I explained that I “worked with children, teaching them English, writing, or whatever was required, but after dark, I worked long hours, often not finishing until the middle of the night.”

“And then you taught children the morning after?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I was exhausted, but it was fun. And I was making a lot of money.”

“As a waiter?”

“Yeah. People liked me and I made big tips. I had several ‘regulars.’”

He shuffled a little farther away and sized me up, as though inspecting a potentially poisonous snake.

I didn’t know what his deal was, so I tried explaining again, but he cut me off. I laughed because both his reactions and the questions he asked were so ridiculous. But I played along and answered as best I could. A minute later, he excused himself and ran off, looking back at me more than once.

I relayed this conversation to a girl in a pub later that night and she stopped me, pointing out a simple error in my Spanish.

One word. That’s all it was. Just one simple word.

You see, in Spanish, the word for waiter is “camarero.” But I had messed it up, using “caballero” instead—the word for “gentleman.” Not a big deal, under normal circumstances, but then I considered my responses from the American Tourist’s point of view, and the conversation took on a whole new meaning:

“After teaching, I work as a gentleman, working long hours into the night. It’s exhausting, but a lot of fun. The money is great. I am very popular, good at my job, and people obviously like me. I get big tips and have several regulars.”

And that’s when his follow-ups got really weird:

“Do you serve women?”

“Yes.”

“And men?”

“Si claro! Of course!”

“And you like it?”

“It’s great! I have fun and make sure everybody else does too!”

And at that he shook his head, looking at me incredulously, so I said, “So I guess you’ve never worked as a gentleman.”

He snorted as if such a notion was impossible.

But I said, “I think everyone should work in the service industry for at least a little while. It teaches you a lot about what people truly want.”

And then he ran away.

And that’s how I learned that, in communication of any sort, every single word is vital. As Mark Twain once said, “use the right word, not its second cousin.” Because I did not follow that advice, I can only imagine what the guy I had been talking to assumed about my relationship with my 2nd cousin . . . who is a dude.

The point is: you want to be specific with your word choice. Always. When you’re writing or speaking publically, obviously, but even in day-to-day interactions, because a small mistake can send a wacked out and bizarre message.

In this case, the damage was minimal. In fact, I’d say the added bonus of my learning a valuable lesson is that there’s a guy out there telling an amazing “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” story about the time he met a substitute school-teacher/bi-sexual male prostitute.

And that’s pretty cool.

 

Sunshine Award

Fellow writer and book lover Emilyann Girdner (http://www.anythingimagined.blogspot.com) nominated my blog for a Sunshine Award! Thanks, Emilyann!

Sunshine Award

Scroll to the bottom of this post for a list of great “writing blogs” I am nominating and go check them out!

You can learn a bit more about me if you bother reading my answers to these questions. I’m just a little bit of all right, so you might be interested in getting to know me better. However, I won’t be offended (heck, I might respect you even more) if you simply head straight to my recommended blog sites at the far bottom. You can thank me later.

As part of the fun, I am to answer 10 questions and nominate other bloggers for the award. Here are the rules:

  1. Include the award’s logo in my blog post.
  2. Link to the person who nominated you.
  3. Answer the 10 questions about yourself.
  4. Nominate 10 bloggers.
  5. Link your nominees to the post and commend on their blogs, letting them know they have been nominated.

So here we go. . . .

  1. Favorite color: Varying shades of blue, like the Blue Morpho Butterfly or a clear sea on a sunny day.
  2. Favorite Animal: Dogs, preferably the small & friendly variety that won’t kill me.
  3. Favorite Number: Four because that includes my wife, our two children, and me (so “No,” not because of Divergent).
  4. Favorite Non-Alcoholic Drink: This topic is inherently flawed: it assumes that something without alcohol is still a “drink” instead of a beverage. But in order to play along, I’ll say Cherry Coke Zero.
  5. Favorite Alcoholic Drink: Blue Moon beer.
  6. Facebook or Twitter: I confess that I don’t follow either regularly, but I certainly learn more about writing via Twitter than Facebook because it is through other tweets that I learn about author signings, contests, agents, advice, conferences, etc.
  7. Passions: Checking items off of my “bucket list,” enjoying time with family and friends, vacations, and experiencing great stories through writing, reading, and shows or movies.
  8. Prefer giving or getting presents? Giving. No question.
  9. Favorite City: I have three:
    1. Edinburgh, Scotland.
    2. Wellington, New Zealand.
    3. Sweet home, Chicago.
    4. Favorite TV Shows: That are on right now:Arrow, Sherlock (BBC), Dr. Who (BBC), Modern Family, Grimm, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead

Favorite TV Shows Of All TimeLost, Firefly, Fringe, and Babylon 5 (ignore the sad production value—the writing is great).

And I’m nominating the following great blogs!

Note: I’m supposed to nominate 10 blogs, but I’m trying to only nominate ones I have not mentioned in the past. I met these folks via writeoncon.com this past summer and they all gave me some great advice on my manuscript! Check them out TODAY!

http://juliathewritergirl.wordpress.com

http://www.kimvanderhorst.com

http://kirabudge.weebly.com

http://jennifermeaton.com

http://rachelpudelek.blogspot.com

http://tangynt.wix.com/work

http://jessmontgomery.wordpress.com

Taking Writing Criticism from Teenagers

Hearing a group of teenagers critique my unpublished YA novel was fantastic, but it was also an exercise in self-censorship (something I am historically inept at doing).

Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful to all twenty-five of the high school freshmen who elected to read my manuscript and thrilled by the degree to which they have helped me. Many of their insights have been rewarding and their questions have helped guide my future revision. While I was nervous about this “experiment,” I am very pleased with the results.  It is clear that my book has some strong elements going for it though it still needs work (some scenes were unclear, some questions left unanswered, and several of my students’ suggestions were good ones!). My students have given me the insight I need to improve the novel in a variety of ways. As a result, I feel rejuvenated and am excited to work on the new draft!

Of course, not every nugget of criticism was golden. Smiling and keeping quiet when students missed details that I know where there was a challenge. As an English teacher, I’m used to students overlooking or not remembering details from their reading. However, it is a bit different when they are overlooking or perhaps speed-reading your own work and then criticizing your writing for being confusing. I wanted to say, “Look right here! It’s right there! And look! It is mentioned again over here!” but I am happy to say that I refrained at all times. Instead, I just smiled and said, “Oh. Huh. Thanks for telling me.” More often than not, when they were confused or had questions, the fault was indeed mine because I didn’t explain something well enough, but when the answer to the question was right there in the text I had to bite my tongue. When they had major questions about the story, a scene, or character, I would stop and explain those things and turn the conversation into a lesson on storytelling and the kinds of decisions authors have to make, but if the question or comment was unimportant to understanding the overall story, I just let it go.

I learned a great deal about the strengths and weakness of my writing from this experience and the positives certainly outweigh any possible negatives by about 100 to 1.  Several students seemed to legitimately enjoy the novel and many were able to identify the very themes I wanted to incorporate. No one thought the novel was terrible (though several had trouble with it and were drowning in questions). As an added bonus, I don’t think any of the students thought I was a bad sport about hearing their criticism. After all, I asked them to rip the book to shreds, so THANK YOU to “The Schmidty Committee” for all of your hard work. You guys are great! Should the novel ever get published, I’ll have to put you all on my “acknowledgements” page.

Now go and have a great summer!