Editor’s Corner 101.23

Hedge Trimming – Bidding Adieu to Ambivalence

Dragon ScribeIt is another glorious August morning; the dog days are past, there is a slight nip in the air, and the New England sky is taking on the vibrant blue of ear…ly autumn. A perfect day for hedge trimming.

I am not talking about shaggy privets or laurels, or overgrown rhododendron and yew turning the yard into a wilderness and begging for the touch of well-edged shears. No, I am referring to the stray equivocations that seep insidiously into our prose – wee, verbal field mice, gnawing away at our meaning. Seems to be, more or less, essentially, about, almost as if, sort of, as it were…. The list goes on with the persistence of a Minoan labyrinth.


They dilute our prose and sap our meaning. Unless spouted by a character less decisive than Hamlet’s second cousin twice removed, they are unnecessary 99.9% of the time. We know this deep in our souls, yet they continue to plague us like verbal viruses we just can’t shake.

From where does this urge to mitigate our authorial voice come?

As with most of our bad writing habits, I believe it comes from writing as we talk. And live – or strive to.

In my youth, lo so many years ago, I was taught to tread lightly through the world. Each step, each word has consequences even if they’re not immediately evident. I was also taught that truth is seldom absolute and to presume to know The Truth about anything is the height of arrogance. The pride before the fall. Call it the Rashomon Effect. (note: truths are not to be confused with facts, which, while open to interpretation are in and of themselves quantifiable constants.) In a cosmic sense, there are as many truths as there are beings in the universe. If we are lucky, we will find one or two that meet our needs, asking for more is just greedy. A venal sin, avarice.Truth%20Cartoon

While such life lessons served me well for being in the world, it took me years to discover – then believe – that the opposite was true for writing in the world. Writing has hedges of a different cut, and the fictive voice must be authoritarian, even dictatorial. Shed the hedges – trim them, if you will – from your prose. Set doubt aside and rage through the landscapes of our making. Be certain. No deference to the masses or shilly-shallying will suffice. We serve the story, after all.

I know this sounds arrogant, and, well, it is. You are the architects of your novels and short stories, and no structure stands with foundations ‘sort of’ level or walls ‘roughly’ plumb. There is nothing relativistic here. As the sole creator of your universe, your truth is absolute and no one can say otherwise. But make your truth precise, memorable, and believable enough to touch.img_artemis A heroine isn’t ‘rather impressive,’ she’s six feet of Artemesian grace, with a mind like Susan Sontag and the riveting gaze of the Delphi charioteer. This is a woman you not only see in your mind’s eye, but know how she’ll stack up against whatever villains come her way.

I am fond of saying the anarchist in me balks at blind obedience to even the most reasonable rules. In the case of hedging, I am more inclined than usual to set my anarchism aside. Still, if the mantle of authorial power sits uncomfortably on your shoulder, and you feel compelled to equivocate, try to do so unequivocally. And when you must hedge here and there to appease the spirit of your prose, let those hedges be topiaries, wild and wondrous, adding to your world, not detracting from it.

962120-bigthumbnailSo be sure of yourself.
Be dynamic.
Be a little arrogant.
Be memorable.

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I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.22

Trimming the Fat

Scribe small

Today I want to discuss trimming the fat we marble into our tales and presenting the cleanest, leanest work possible. (Vegetarians, my apologies for the metaphor. Think of shaping a bonsai, instead.)sculpture-1-600x824 In my experience, most verbal excess comes from a simple bad habit: writing as we talk. Unnecessary conjunctions and prepositions, qualifiers and redundancies, litter spoken English – and, I imagine, most other languages – slipping in as casually as a hem or a haw or a thought-filled caesura. But put that into fiction or poetry and the flow sputters and stalls like a crusty engine.

The fact is, most of us overwrite. Stephen King advised, look at your work then cut 10%. Draconian? Perhaps. Still, it’s a standard to which we can all – including Mr. King – aspire. (Don’t get me started on famous writers who shun outside editing! In my humble opinion, they are of a piece with fools who choose to represent themselves at the bar.)

But what to cut and where? ‘That’ is a great starting place. Ubiquitous to the point of passing unnoticed, ‘that’ in its conjunctive form is a colloquialism easily excised 90% of the time. “The manuscript that he gave his editor…” sounds better and loses not a whit of meaning as, “The manuscript he gave his editor….” Take a scythe to your ‘thats’ and don’t look back.

A slew of other prepositions, articles, and conjunctions fall into this same category, their misuse serving only to muddy syntax and emasculate verbs and nouns. “Join in on the fun,” for example, may be fine on the playground, but, on the page, “join the fun” is more effective. Likewise, judicious use of gerunds can eliminate the need for stray words, usually conjunctions: “He growled through his teeth and refused to give ground.” vs. “Growling through his teeth, he refused to give ground.” Or: “He growled through his teeth, refusing to give ground.”

Spoken English is also rife with redundant phrases: end result; complicated dilemma, enter in, completely sated, etc. All results come at the end, all dilemmas are complex, to enter means ‘go in’ and sated to be ‘stuffed to the gills.’ Choose your words with care, understand their meanings, and toss any extraneous adjectives or adverbs. (Note: Some editors say, slash all adverbs and adjectives by half. A tad extreme to my thinking, still ruthless eyes – and ears – make for more-concise prose.)

When it comes to iterating ideas, don’t give into temptation. You will simply be paraphrasing yourself, which not only bogs down the narrative but also ticks off readers eager for a story not a lecture. Write it well the first time and trust your audience to get it.


Qualifying words and phrases – verbal hedges – fall squarely into the category of literary fat, but, as they are a particular peeve of mine, I will leave them to next week. For now, read your work aloud, see where it stumbles or gets lost in verbal superfluity. Then, mindful of integrity in tone and tale, if your sentences work without the thats, ands, ins, and buts, cut as deep as you can.

Down to the bone.

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I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.20

The Round and the Furry – When Good Letters Go Bad.

“My spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles,
and the letters get in the wrong places.”

Scribe smallA fragile day, today – last week still weighs heavily – and I was tempted to throw the corner open to you readers in a sort of Q & A: you ask me your most pressing editing questions and I provide pithy bon mots in return. However, the writer in me seems to have a hard time settling for such a terse exposition.

So, a story.

When I was a kid, I was a notoriously bad speller. Oh, I could memorize word lists for tests, but back when I was nine, the rules and vagaries of English spelling seemed as nonsensical as a Hatter’s high tea. As much as I loved roaming through dictionaries, etymology was an undiscovered country to this youthful traveler, one I didn’t knowingly explore for a few years yet. (A failing of our education system, perhaps, to rely on rote rather than reason.)


Fast forward several decades – irony running ahead of the wind – and I now help fill the household coffers by editing crossword puzzles. (I can think of a few teachers laughing their asses off over that!) I have taken advantage of time and experience and am a better, if somewhat indifferent, speller. I am also an occasionally errant typist, prey to dyslexic fingers and fur-laced keyboards. (Thank you, kids!)


This does not even begin to touch on the unexplained mystery of the eye/brain connection which leads us to see words as we expect them to be, not necessarily as they are. I find this most true when proofing my own work; I know the words inside and out and so my mind fills in blanks, automatically switches inverted letters, and glides over –ance when it should be –ence, because, well, the mind is funny that way.


Since nothing screams “Unprofessional!” like a text littered with typos and orthographic errors, the writing gods put their heads together and gifted us poor scriveners with spellcheck. Voila! Proofreading for dummies! All those pesky blunders red-lined and auto-corrected. Nothing could be simpler.

Except of course, nothing is ever that simple.

First, the standard spellcheck database is limited. This leads to erroneous markups or, conversely, if your spelling is truly atrocious, letter-salad flagged, but scant help provided re alternatives. In other words, you’re on your own. (Most word-processing dictionaries can be expanded – something which, as a fantasist, I do frequently, especially with esoterica and exotic names, so easy to make up but not always to remember. But, damn it Jim! We’re writers not lexicographers!)


More troublesome for some – and not really the fault of the program – is the fact that English is a whimsical language, rife with homonyms and frequently confused/misused words, for which spellcheck simply doesn’t suffice.


The list goes on and on….

So what do you do when “I rote a tail about a plain full of grisly bares en root to the dessert” passes through spellcheck with flying colors?

You beet your Brest, pull your hare (but not by his ears), and remember that computers are only tulles.


Tools work best when we users knows our craft. And the best tools are always in our heads. Read your work slowly and with care. Don’t hesitate to drag out your dictionary, handy grammar guide, even a knowledgeable friend or two, if you are stuck. This is the picky-nit part of writing. Love it, hate it, but do it diligently, starting with the a spellcheck from top to bottom, front to back. For, despite flaws in the system, it is still a great proofing aid. Then, if you can, find fresh eyes to read your work through again. And again….

Next week I am going to do that Editor’s Corner Q & A. I’ll be on line all next Tuesday, so drop by. Ask me your questions, I’ll tell ewe no lyes. Oops![THIS IS FROM THE ORIGINAL POSTING—DOES NOT APPLY FOR NEXT TUESDAY]

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond. — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.16

Dangling Our Toes in the Stream of Consciousness

Scribe smallI love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours…

So, I picked up Ulysses the other day – as one is wont to do – and dove into the roiling river which is Molly Bloom’s beautifully, rudely fecund tale at book’s end. With my mind groping towards a subject for today, I read not only for the jaw-dropping poetry of the words tumbling across the page, but also for their precise, artful construction.

james-joycecollageAfter last week’s discussion of structure and time, it feels only natural to turn this week to a structure often entirely out of time, stream of consciousness. As a matter of history – and by now you know how I love my literary history – the term was first used by William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890) to describe the uncensored way thoughts play across the mind. Writers picked it up as a narrative conceit, a means to imitate our interior chatter that fills out brains. Though some say his baby brother Henry (and a few other 19th-century scribes) toyed with the style, it did not really catch on until the 20th century.

Which brings me back to Joyce – and to Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, and other masters of stream of consciousness. Ulysses, The Waves,The Waves As I Lay Dying, Strange Interlude, all are modern classics with interior narratives as intricately constructed aAs I Lay Dyings Chartres cathedral. They lead the reader into the mental meanderings of characters, each word leaping off the page 200px-Strange_Interlude2like a synaptic spark, seemingly random, spontaneous, and free. Yet they knew what too many novice writers do not: an imitation of unfiltered thought is not truly unfiltered. Intimations of freedom require restraints.

Now, as an editor, I lay the trouble many people have with SofC at the door of misguided youth and J.D. Salinger. (For the younger generation, consider the culpability of the vast Cyberian wasteland and the Twitter/Facebook anything-I-think-is-brilliant-because-I-think-it mentality.) Back when we were teenagers many a would-be writer sat in third-period English poring over The Catcher in the Rye, carried along by Holden’s free-wheeling SofC narrative. Chances are generation of well-meaning teacher even assigned stream-of-consciousness essays, urging a generation to emulate Salinger and capture the spontaneity of his style. And why not? We were young and easily enamored by the freedom SofC embodied, believing that it’s simply a matter of turning on a tap and going with the verbal flow.

While this may be great for dusting the morning cobwebs from a sleepy brain, or dislodging a paralyzing case of writer’s block, an objective look at such writing will tell you that it may be ‘free’ but chances are it’s not very good. Even journaling, personally fascinating and helpful as it may be, seldom rises to the level of literature. (Pepys, Nin, Woolf, and a few other extraordinary diarists are the exception that proves the rule, and in some cases, they clearly wrote their diaries with an eye on posterity, making them more intentionally artful. But I digress….)

The fact is, if you look at Joyce or Woolf, you will see that there is no happenstance in their words (there was a reason it took Joyce 12 years to write Ulysses). They’re filtered through character and structure and rules, each stream-polished stone placed just so, that it might catch the sun perfectly. Like each stroke Jackson Pollock put on canvas, there is purpose and intent behind every word. There is the meticulous manifestation of choice.Jackson-Pollock-21

Throwing paint at a canvas doesn’t make someone Jackson Pollock and spilling random words onto paper doesn’t make you James Joyce. Literary stream of consciousness is not automatic writing, it just feels that way.

And that is the writer’s magic. The studied art of effortlessness.

Dive in, if you dare.

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Editor’s Corner 101.8

The Precision of Words
Written by Shawn MacKenzie

“I do love perusing the dictionary to find how many words I don’t use – words that have specific, sharp, focused meaning.” … Geoffrey Rush

Scribe smallIt has been a Mad-Mouse sort of week, jostling me between work well done and pounding my head against an impenetrable stone wall, so I hope you bear with me if I am briefer than usual.

Today, as I was typing away at my keyboard (and deleting and typing anew), I began to think about our writer’s tools. The fact is, as a profession, writing is extremely light when it comes to essential implements. Pen and paper, they’re the basics. Of course, it’s the 21st century, and most of us have exchanged blank bond for a computer screen – to the eternal gratitude of many a pulpwood forest and their denizens. Much as I have come to rely on my computer, the Luddite in me still finds eternal delight in the feel of a fine fountain pen dancing across a pristine page.

Beyond that, the best tool a writer can have is a good dictionary.

A dictionary is a wonder – a good dictionary is a treasure. Between its covers lives the entirety of a language. And make no mistake, a language does live. It grows and changes, grafts on a foreign phrase here and gives fruit to a portmanteau there. It is full of infinite variety and as artful or as sloppy as we choose to make it.

Too often we writers get into ruts. We get comfortable with a primary palette of nouns and verbs and everyday adjectives. When we want to stir things up we simply trowel on the adverbs. Not that there is anything wrong with the everyday. If it suits. Your basic 8-pack of Crayolas can create lovely pictures. But after a while you might just want to increase the linguistic colors at your disposal. Green has its place, but Fern tastes of forest loam and Inch Worm is as warm as a May afternoon. crayola-by-nicole

In an instant, the ordinary flowers into a world of infinite possibilities.

Which brings me to my editorial advice for this week: Never settle for the imprecise simply because you can’t put call to mind the more exact alternative.

Get yourself a linguistic big 120-box of crayons. Use your dictionary. Religiously. The better your vocabulary, the more options you have to say exactly what you mean. Hell, open it at random and jump right in. I do this often, especially with the OED, a lexicologist’s dream. Use your thesaurus, too. While you don’t want your writing to sound like it was written-by-thesaurus, Roget’s tome and its ilk (the Oxford Writer’s Thesaurus is particularly good and accessible) can serve as catalysts for the imagination. When all is said and done, in that “Eureka!” moment as just the right word unrolls across the page, does it really matter the path it followed to get there?


“Webster’s—the original high definition entertainment.” …. Jarod Kintz

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   — Shawn MacKENZIEMacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Thoughts on Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 8]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 8

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 14th December 2014

susan sontag photo for series

The writer does not have to write. She must imagine that she must. A great book: no one is addressed, it counts as cultural surplus, it comes from the will.

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Ordinary language is an accretion of lies. The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression. The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.

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The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.

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Making lists of words, to thicken my active vocabulary. To have puny, not just little, hoax, not just trick, mortifying, not just embarrassing, bogus, not just fake.
I could make a story out of puny, hoax, mortifying, bogus. They are a story.

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

When Susan Sontag died the obituaries omitted her relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz, with whom Sontag maintained a relationship with throughout her last decade.

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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Thoughts on Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 7]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 7

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 7th December 2014

susan sontag photo for series

Language as a found object

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Last novelist to be influenced by, knowledgeable about science was Aldous Huxley
One reason [there are] no more novels — There are no exciting theories of relation of society to self (sociological, historical, philosophical)
Not SO — no one is doing it, that’s all
(undated, March 1979)

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There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work
(undated, March 1979)

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To write one must wear blinkers. I’ve lost my blinkers.
Don’t be afraid to be concise!

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A failure of nerve. About writing. (And about my life — but never mind.) I must write myself out of it.
If I am not able to write because I’m afraid of being a bad writer, then I must be a bad writer. At least I’ll be writing.
Then something else will happen. It always does.
I must write every day. Anything. Everything. Carry a notebook with me at all times, etc.
I read my bad reviews. I want to go to the bottom of it — this failure of nerve

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, [Sontag considered herself to be bisexual] but it’s never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody’s in drastic need. I’d rather give pleasure, or shake things up.” – Susan Sontag

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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