A persona of myself

selfie01aA year ago, I had this crazy idea of creating an online persona. I was going through one of these phases where I hate myself and wish I was somebody else, when I realised that with the internet I could be someone else. Nobody would know it wasn’t true.

I’d create a character for myself, the person I’d love to be. She’d be beautiful, stylish, elegant, classy, smart, sensitive… I could dye my hair, photoshop my face, use a pen name. There were no limits to whom I could pretend to be. I mean, obviously I couldn’t pretend to be famous or anything, but… I wouldn’t want that anyway.

Hannah Jane McMurray 03
Ida would look more or less like Hannah Jane McMurray

The name I chose for her was Ida. It’s made up the 3 central letters of my full name. If I was to make it big or get found out as a “fraud”, I could say cool stuff like “Ida is my core self”.

She would be a writer. Not a famous one, just… a surviving one. Ghostwriter, maybe? That would explain why her name couldn’t be found anywhere. She’d be driven, she’d know how to get things done, unlike me. She wouldn’t bother with countless hobbies like I do, either. She’d be writing, reading… maybe just… playing piano in her free time (I do play a little).

She’d be 30 something and have written several books. She wouldn’t let myself get sidetracked. She’d be quite assertive, too. And a business woman, out of necessity.

Her beauty routine would be psychotically perfect: she’d exercise 6 days a week, eat healthily, keep a steady weight all year long. She’d take excellent care of her skin, paint her nails, go the beauty parlour every week. Her house would be clean, her garden well-groomed.

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Art by Arisbeth Cruz Hernandez

Oh, but she’d have to have a few faults, or else she’d look superhuman. So… I guess… uh… well, she’d be a perfectionist like me. And then… wait, I gave her too many qualities, she looks like a freaking Disney princess. She wouldn’t be assertive; she’d be a shyish introvert like myself. And she wouldn’t be so pretty. It’d be a bother to heavily photoshop all of my pictures anyway. There is no need for a writer to be model-pretty.

That’s when I realised the beauty to die for was the only unachievable characteristic – that is without surgery and time-consuming daily routines. Nothing was keeping me from becoming that person. I could take better care of myself. I could give up those hobbies that didn’t make me feel like I was doing anything of value.

Ida became me. I was fine with it; I was good enough. I already was who I wanted to be, all that was missing was a clear path to follow.

DIGITAL CAMERAThen, gradually, I became more like the original Ida. I became more driven; I wrote two first drafts; I gave up all of the hobbies I could; I even go to the beauty parlour every few weeks now. I still gain weight in the winter to lose in the spring; my house is still messy most of the time; my lawn is half grass, half dandelions. It’s fine. People gotta have faults, hey?

Becoming a surviving writer might never possible. It doesn’t matter, being a struggling writer is good enough.

Who would have thought I’d have to create a fake identity to find my true identity?

Just be yourself. Let people see the real, imperfect, flawed, quirky, weird, beautiful, magical person that your are.
– Mandy Hale

Declutter your text: beware of repetitions

Repetitions can take different shapes: multiple occurrences of the same word, synonyms, pleonasms, redundancies. When used wisely, repetitions can be an interesting stylistic device. When used unwisely, they can severely harm the elegance of your text.

The easiest repetitions to spot are the multiple occurrences of the same word (or the use of a word in the same family). Of course, some words have to be repeated: “repeat” or its substantive “repetition” have been repeated 7 times by this point. However, it is wise to reduce their number as much as possible.Camouflaged cat c

When trying to avoid reiterations of the same words, don’t succumb to the temptation of the thesaurus. Using a synonym won’t get you rid of the repetition of ideas, it will only camouflage it a little. Or if you use synonyms, know that you are creating a repetition.

To really get rid of the repetition of ideas, you can first see if you couldn’t just delete the phrase or the whole sentence without deleting any useful information. Otherwise, you have to reword the sentence or the two or three sentences in which the repetitions occur until you are convinced that you express your ideas in the best possible way.

A pleonasm happens when you put together two words, one of which was already included in the other’s definition. Some examples would be “false pretence” or “safe haven”. By definition, a pretence is false and a haven safe.

marie_cecile_thijs_4Close to pleonasms are redundancies. How many times a year do you see or hear the phrase “plan in advance”? My own experience is limited, but I’ve never seen anyone plan anything after it was done. Or even plan it as it was being done. The act of planning is done in advance. If you really must stress that the planning process takes time and it should be started X time before the D day, then be specific!

In the same vein, you have the tautology: the act of repeating the same idea back-to-back. “I saw it with my own eyes”, “In my opinion, I think…”, etc.

You can find lists of redundancies, tautologies and pleonasms through search engines or… start analysing each and every word, wondering whether they’re absolutely necessary. Yup, studying writing will make you paranoiac. You’ll learn to live with it.

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Tired of cat photographs yet?

Redundancies can also be a repetition of ideas whether in the same sentence or paragraph or through the entire text. I’ve had started a book quite recently, but the writer’s insistence on the love interest’s beauty and sexiness got old quick. It was like a broken record. The reader is not so stupid that you have to remind them all the time of the aforementioned ideas. Besides, it’ll make you look like you have nothing new and fresh to say.

If you really *must* repeat an idea, do it with intent: introduce it early and “prove” it in your conclusion; change the outcome and make it a progression as in the Three Little Pigs; make everything the same so that one thing stands out.

When finding a repetition while editing my texts, I ask myself 3 questions: 1) Is it there for artistic purposes? 2) Does it serve the text? 3) If the repetition is clumsy, is there any way I could reword the sentence to avoid it?

I think this will be the last post in the series for a while. If the subject interests you, however, I warmly recommend you to read On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

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Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeUse modifiers in moderation.

Spring is the time of plans and projects

IMG_0842(The title is a quote from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoi.)
It’s finally starting to look like spring in Québec! Snow is melting fast, temperatures are forecasted to be around 6-10 °C all week, everybody and everything seem to be reviving… including me. Especially me.

The slump in which I had been stuck the first 3 months of 2017 has come to an end. The whole car accident thing is in the past: we got a brand new car, brand new car seat for our daughter which she loves, my husband is undergoing treatment for his neck… all that almost for free thanks to our insurance company.

What’s more, my former employer called to offer me a job as a freelancer. I accepted and they proceeded to send me full-time work for two weeks. That alone will be enough to keep my mind off money issues for a while, but I’m thinking I’ll get even more work in the coming weeks.

blue flower3In March, I’ve also received more visitors on my blog than ever before, and that pumped me to start researching blogging. It was one of my resolutions for the year, and it’s about time I got started! I’ve bookmarked a beginner’s guide to SEO, and I’ll fight hard to make time to read it. It’ll be a first step.

I’m also thinking of moving my “personal ramblings” such as this post to a Facebook page to keep the blog more focused on writing and literature.

To tell you the truth, my energy level and mood are so high that I have about a hundred projects right now, and I know I won’t have the time to do half of them. It’s alright, they’re all aimed at the same goal anyway: to make me a kickass writer.

I’ll be busy this month.

But I’m happy.
magnolia flower

A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King.
– Emily Dickinson

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a MockingbirdContext

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been on my to-read list for a long time. When you hear a title frequently enough, you become curious. There was a child on the cover, it seemed light-hearted… hahaha. That’ll teach me to judge a book by its cover.

I had no idea what the story was about – at all. Had I had the slightest idea, I would’ve kept it for later and would probably have never come around to read it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it: this book is a masterpiece and deserves its Pulitzer Price. But it took all my courage to finish it, and now I’ve had enough emotions for a while.

Review

The plot kept me on my toes for a very long time: until about the middle of the book, when I realised what the story was about. Then, for another 150 pages, I became frustrated and wished I had never started that book. I could see where it was leading and didn’t like it. Worse: I was crying so much, I found it hard to continue reading. But the final 70 pages pacified me and made me feel… at peace. Once you started it, you have to push through until the end and not stop when it gets frustrating because the ending is so worth the effort. (Wow, that could be said of a lot of things in life.)

The themes are the strongest point of the book, as is often the case with non-genre fiction. They are deep and they are many, including courage, compassion, racism, karma and gender roles. It’s impossible to finish that book without having thought long and hard about at least one of its themes… or without having had the urge to throw it out the window.

To Kill a Mockingbird movieThe characters felt so alive, it’s like I was a Maycomb citizen and had known them my whole life. I identified a lot with Scout… It might be only the second time I identify so much with a character (the first being Villette’s Lucy Snowe). When I read my own thoughts written by an author with whom I haven’t much in common, I can only admire them. Someday, I want to do that to someone else.

The secondary characters weren’t any less three-dimensional, though: Jem, Atticus (my new favourite name), Miss Maudie… It’s like I was allowed to see their souls.

The language was plain and easy to understand except for some local words, but nothing out of the ordinary considering English isn’t my first language. I loved to “hear” people’s accents.

There might have been a few too many historical references to my taste, but that might just be me not liking to be showered with dates and historical events.

Rating: 10/10

Who would I recommend this to? Lovers of deep non-genre literature, who love feeling intense emotions; even better if they also love American history (I’m sure there were lots of references in there I didn’t get because I’m not a US citizen). However, I think it’s cruel to force anybody under 18 to read it; there are more accessible English classics out there.

Declutter your text: use modifiers in moderation

Modifiers are adjectives, adverbs or phrases whose only purpose is to modify a noun or verb. They are to language what accessories are to clothing. Used unwisely, they can ruin the whole thing.

Let it be clear: I love adjectives and adverbs. They’re an essential part of every language. But as with anything in life, they must be used in moderation.

Decora max res
Decora fashion shows it is possible for “too many accessories” to look great, but it is difficult to achieve; the same is true with modifiers.

Behold the following sentence, written by me 10 years ago:

A white hand with fine and long fingers was faithfully transcribing the properties of plant handwritten in a book bound with ribbons.

This sentence has… ahem… potential, but as is, it’s terrible. It’s a translation, but the original is hardly better. We’ll leave all of the other problems for some other time and focus on the modifiers:

A white hand with fine and long fingers was faithfully transcribing the properties of plants handwritten in a notebook bound with ribbons.

21 words in that sentence, 14 of which are modifiers or part of a modifier. There are even modifiers within modifiers. Worst: the same exact thing could be said in a tighter and more elegant way.

A white hand with fine and long fingers

Except in certain horror scenes, hands and fingers usually go together… no need for both words. Only talking about fingers make the reader picture a hand in their head. Also, there’s a word for “fine and long”: slender. Let’s use that instead.

faithfully transcribing

When I originally wrote this, I wanted to make the character look as devoted as a monk transcribing the Bible. I could leave it there, but I prefer to take it out.

plant properties handwritten in a notebook bound with ribbons.

There is such a thing as too many details. I won’t talk about it in depth here, but know it: some details do nothing for the story and are therefore clutter. Here, it is unnecessary to point out it is bound with ribbons, but I do want to give it a homemade look… Well that’s it: “a homemade notebook”. Now, let’s change the verb for “written”, since it is implicit that it is written by hand from the very word “notebook”.

Revised sentence:

White, slender fingers were transcribing the properties of plants written in a homemade notebook.

That 21-word-sentence is reduced to 14, with now only 7 modifiers. It is still “flowery” enough, but much more elegant.

girl-4-copieAnother trick to get rid of an excess of adjectives, adverbs or other modifiers, is to use stronger nouns (skyscraper or tower for tall building) or verbs (exhausted for very tired), or more precise modifiers (like slender for long and fine, etc.). If I don’t recommend you to use the thesaurus to avoid repeating the same adjective twice in one sentence, I encourage you to use it to find the right word.

Finally, it is often a good idea to “show, [not] tell”. For example, if your character is moody, it should reflect on his actions and words; that’s how people understand others’ moods. Same with most character traits, weather, etc. Compare: “It was cold outside” and “The cold bit my skin as I walked out”.

Oh wow, there is a lot of information in here, but you made it to the end. You did great.

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
– Mark Twain, letter to D.W. Bowser, 20 March 1880

Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeBeware of repetitions.

How I love my love stories (or not)

I was supposed to post the second episode of “Declutter your text”, talking about editing two weeks in a row felt a bit… heavy, so I figured I’d post something lighter today. That being said, here is today’s program:

prideprejudice
Pride and Prejudice

Before I met my husband, I thought I hated love stories. That is… most love stories. I’ve always been a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice. But the movies my more romantic female friends loved made me want to barf.

I never really asked myself why that was because as a rule, I hated things “stereotypical girls” loved: romance movies and books, pop music, shopping, make-up, skirts and even shorts, talking about boys, public display of emotions, etc. I was a tomboy and didn’t care to pretend otherwise.

My meeting with my husband made me discover a sweet side in myself I didn’t know I had. I started to binge-watch Japanese dramas, I read everything Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë… I thought I had changed.

I hadn’t. I tried watching some TV series the other day, and the well-known “excuse me while I barf” feeling came right back. Now, that series has been super popular, so I again felt like an alien not liking it. I made it my mission to watch that show until I discovered what it was I hated so much, and what it was I loved so much in the guilty pleasure romances I indulge in from time to time. I have finally found it.

Buzzer_Beat
Buzzer Beat

I love when the story revolves around one or both character’s passion for something, be it dance, piano, drawing, cooking or even eating, getting one’s revenge or running a million dollar business. The characters then proceed to support each other in their own passion, and together they’ll be able to accomplish great things. I am drawn to that kind of stories like a fly to honey, because they leave me feeling motivated to pursue my own passion.

I hate when love and romantic relationships are the one thing every single character ever care or talk about. Now, I can be understanding: I had a friend in high school who cared a lot about guys and romantic relationships, so much that she’d talk about that 80% of the time. It’s fine. But that the whole cast is like that? It doesn’t feel realistic and there is no character I can identify with.

Also, I’ve watched or read stories in which the “fated couple” have an extremely toxic influence on each other, sometimes to the point where one of them (typically the girl) wants to commit suicide. And that’s not mentioning those in which suicide happens because those are classified as tragedies, not romances. But still… she loves him so much and blah blah blah. Excuse me, but somebody who plays with my heart strings to the point of making me want to die doesn’t deserve the tiniest place in my heart… Again, I know that some girls can’t help it, they love the jerk that disrespects them… I don’t.

densha otoko
Densha Otoko

Finally, I love when men feel “real”. I love when they’re shy, clumsy or unsure what to do, but trying to do it right. I love when they won’t say that perfect sentence the girl wants to hear, but end up conveying their feelings in their own ways. In other words, I love when they’re not just there as a handsome prop.

Of course, those are all just personal opinions. There are no “dos and don’ts” here. Just my own tastes. But I am really happy to realise that the single love story I’ve written reflects what I love, and stays away from what I hate… despite it having been written before I analysed my tastes. After all, my goal is to write a book I’d love to read.

Declutter your text: narrow your scope

cat-1429231_960_720Am I the only one who gets discouraged when, scrolling down a possibly interesting blog post, I see that it’s obviously a few thousand words? Unless the writer is a friend or an amazing writer, I’ll tend to pass. Maybe the writer had a lot to say, in which case all is well, or maybe they rambled forever… which is one of the surest ways to lose my attention.

When you start off as a blogger, you try to say everything in one post. I did. Then, that annoying advice my college teacher would repeat me until I got my essay topic approved came to haunt me again:

“Narrow it down.”

That’s when I realised I was trying to fit 3 posts in 1. From there, it was easy to separate them. What’s difficult is seeing that there are, indeed, 3 distinct ideas. They are so intricately weaved together in your head that you don’t see the different threads. Readers, however, could end up confused or bored and you don’t want that.

So you have a neverending first draft. Excellent! Now, figure out the “point” of your article. editingYou have to be able to summarise it in a few words – your title. If you’d be tempted to add commas, or if nothing seems to grasp the entirety of your content… you might have more than one article in there.

Once you know what your point is, analyse every paragraph, then every sentence in your post. Delete or copy/paste everything that’s irrelevant. Even the funniest of anecdotes will fall flat if it’s not relevant in context. If you have such a jewel, keep it and make it shine bright where it belongs.

All of that is a bit vague, so here’s a concrete example. I tried reading a book review recently and I could not finish it. There was a lengthy introduction about the theme of the book, a rather long synopsis and a few opinions scattered here and there.

I don’t know about you, but when I read reviews, all I want is an opinion. I want to know what worked and didn’t work for you. I can read the blurb on Goodreads, and it will be one that has been rewritten several times by professionals. Actually, most of the times when I read a review, that’s because I’ve already read it and was intrigued by it. Retelling me is redundant.

As for the theme… you can mention it, but make it more than a sentence long and it might look out of place. If that theme is important to you and you feel the need to talk more about it… make another post!

yada-yada-1430679_960_720It’s alright to ramble when writing your first draft. That’s what first drafts are for. It’s even okay to post some rambling, especially if you’re talking about your life. But sometimes you have to be to the point.

Of course, time being a limited resource, you have to let go eventually. I’ve rewritten this twice and edited it for several hours… It’s fiiiiine. *publish*

Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t.
– William Zinsser

Other posts in this series: Use modifiers in moderationBeware of repetitions.