Tag Archives: Mark Twain

Crafting the narrative: the potty-mouthed vicar

Portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin by Ilya Repin

Portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin by Ilya Repin PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Look at poor Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin. The artist immortalized him at the unfortunate moment he realized he was faced with a gazillion hours of searching for overused words in his manuscript–and all of them in Russian.

Heh heh.

I wrote a post on this subject three years ago, but it’s time to  dust it off and play with it again. Overused words can be fun if done right:

Mark Twain said, “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Well now, we could have some fun with that!

Think of how often some beginning authors use the word very in their work:

“We are doing very well, thank you,” replied the vicar. “The weather is very nice, and the food  is very good.” 

Let’s do as Twain suggests and see what happens:

“We are doing damn well, thank you,” replied the vicar. “The weather is damn nice and the food is damn good.”

That was fun. The word ‘damn’ leaps out at you, because you don’t really expect it. I personally enjoyed replacing ‘very’ with ‘damn.’  But, hilarious though it is to give the vicar potty-mouth, in reality it’s unnecessary. Simply eliminating ‘very’ and not replacing it with anything goes a long way toward improving it:

“We are doing well, thank you,” replied the vicar. “The weather is nice and the food is good.”

Some times we repeat certain words and phrases for emphasis. This article is not about using repetition when crafting narrative. Instead, we are thinking about words that are overused, and which we can often do without.

In our rough drafts we overuse certain words because we are flying along and they are easy–they say what we want and we can keep on moving.

But in the second draft, we must look for them. Let take the word ‘very.’

Once you are finished with your first draft, do what is called a global search – in Microsoft WORD you click on the ‘Home’ tab, and at the far right hand side click on ‘Find,’ OR press the ‘Ctrl’ key and the ‘F’ key at the same time.  This will open the ‘find and replace’ menu:

find graphics

In the ‘find and replace menu, type the word ‘very’ and click on ‘find next’.  The word ‘very’ will be highlighted in blue, and you can delete it.  I don’t recommend doing ‘replace all’ with any overused modifier, because you will create more problems than you can imagine!  Look at each individual instance of the word, and either delete it or change it to a stronger word.

Deleting them or changing to a stronger word will help you grow as writer.  You will begin to think about your sentences and stretch your vocabulary.

Next do the same with ‘that’ and ‘had.’ These are words  we all use too freely in our first draft, and until an editor pointed it out to me, I had no idea how they weakened my work. They are good words, used infrequently and only when another won’t do the job.

Here is a list of words that can appear with great frequency in your rough drafts, some of which are considered ‘tired.’ Some of these words can be made into contractions to eliminate wordiness. Some can be cut altogether, and some will need to stay. However, some of these words are ‘telling’ words, and we want to avoid that wherever possible. Look at each instance and make that decision.

  • about
  • am
  • are
  • bad
  • beautiful
  • big
  • could
  • did
  • fine
  • good
  • great
  • had
  • has
  • have
  • is
  • look
  • looked
  • nice
  • quite
  • seems
  • so
  • some
  • that
  • then
  • think
  • very
  • was
  • well
  • went

We all use these to excess in our rough draft, because we are laying the roadbed of the superhighway that is our book. The words we spew at this point are the framework we are going to build the true story around, the story that was in our heads, but that the rough draft doesn’t do justice to.

Historical_ThesaurusThis is where our thesaurus comes in handy. We need to express the thoughts our overused words evoke, but we don’t want to repeat them over and over. When a word seems to be cropping up with great frequency, try using the global search option. It will tell you how many instances of the word appears in your manuscript, and you might be surprised.

Highlight the word and right-click on it. A pop-up menu will appear. From that menu, choose ‘synonyms.’ Click on that, and a list of words with similar meanings will appear. If you need more than can be found in that list, click on ‘Thesaurus’ (at the bottom of the list) or google the word and add ‘synonyms’ to your search.

Consider my recent experience with gaped–a beta reader pointed out that I had my characters gaping at each other far too regularly. I had to go through it and have them stare, exchange glances, or simply look away. In several instances, I cut that sentence because it wasn’t really needed.

It can be difficult to see the words you have overused when it is your own work. But you can run your ms through a free, online  program like Word Count Tools and that will give you a heads up on how many times you have used each word.

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Don Quixote

Don Quixote in the library Adolf Schrödter 1834

Don Quixote in the library by Adolf Schrödter 1834

Lately I have been on a Don Quixote binge. Published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, volume I, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and volume II, The Ingenious Knight,  written by by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedrais considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and the entire Spanish literary canon (a body of books traditionally accepted by scholars as the most important and influential in shaping culture.)

As a founding work of modern Western literature,and one of the earliest canonical novels, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published, such as the Bokklubben World Library ( a series of classical books, mostly novels, published by the Norwegian Book Club since 2002) collection which cites Don Quixote as authors’ choice for the “best literary work ever written.” It is also said that the two parts of this masterpiece have been  translated into more languages than any book other than the Bible. 

Don Quixote had major influence on the literary community, as shown by direct references in Alexandre DumasThe Three Musketeers (1844) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

The Story:

Alonso Quixano, the protagonist of the novel (though he is not named until much later in the book), is a retired country gentleman nearing fifty years of age, living in La Mancha with his niece and housekeeper. Although he is mostly a rational man, his excessive reading of books of chivalry has produced a skewed view of reality and what we might consider dementia. In keeping with the theories of the time, not sleeping adequately–because he was reading–has caused his brain to dry. (I LOVE that!) As a result, he is easily given to anger and believes every word of these fictional books of chivalry to be true.

Don Quixote’s niece commits, what is to me, the most heinous crime–she and the Parrish curate burn his library, and lie to him, telling him it was the work of an evil magician. Criminal!!!

He decides to become a knight-errant in search of adventure. To these ends, he dons an old suit of armor, renames himself “Don Quixote”,  and renames his poor old horse “Rocinante.” Cervantes was a genius when he penned the horse–Rocinante is not only Don Quixote’s horse, but is a reflection of Don Quixote himself, ungraceful, past his prime, and in way over his head.

Don Quixote asks his neighbor, Sancho Panza, to be his squire, promising to make him governor of an island. Sancho agrees, and the pair sneak off in the early dawn. At this point their adventures begin, starting with Don Quixote’s attack on the windmills.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra created a wonderful, hilarious masterpiece when he penned Don Quixote. Even in today’s society the plot is relevant and and the characters leap off the pages. The extremes of the human condition are all laid out in glorious prose that has been beautifully translated to English in 2003 by Edith Grossman. The New York Times called Grossman’s translation a “major literary achievement.”

In the original version of Don Quixote there are basically two different types of Castilian Spanish: Old Castilian is spoken only by Don Quixote, while the rest of the roles speak a modern version of Spanish. The Old Castilian of Don Quixote is for comic relief – he copies the language spoken in the chivalric books that made him crazy; and many times, when he talks nobody is able to understand him because his language is too old. This comedic effect translates well to Modern English when the translator has Don Quixote use  Shakespearean English phrases.

I write fantasy, and I read widely. But to those purists who decry the work of genre fiction writers as being “created for the masses,” I would like to say this: it is quite clear that the modern perception of “fantasy” as having no literary merit is complete hogwash when you look at the books that make up the western cannon of great literature. ALL of them are fantasies of one sort or another, beginning with Don Quixote and going forward, and all of them were created for the enjoyment of the masses.

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