Ups, Downs, and Qualifiers All Around

I’ll start with the bad news. I’ve now come to the part in the novel I’m currently working on where my heroine gets her heart broken. Up to now, the book has been mostly ironic philosophical humor mixed with giddy teenage infatuation, and it has been really fun to write. But now it’s going to be sad for a while, and I’m kind of dreading getting into the part that comes next. I don’t know if it’s like this for other writers, but in my forays into story writing so far, whether fictional or memoir, I find I get so wrapped up in what’s happening in the story that I end up empathizing strongly with all my characters, even the kind of jerky ones. When they’re sad or upset, it puts me in a bad mood, and when they’re happy, I’m on a high.

I wonder if it’s the same for actors when they have to play a character—if on stage they get so “in character,” so far inside the character’s head, that they almost start to get their own identities mixed up with the ones they’re portraying. I’ve heard it said that some actors do this, and that it leads to bad acting. Some say the actor has to keep a certain distance from his or her dramatic character, in order to maintain the presence of mind that’s needed for good acting to happen. Others might say the opposite, that an actor has to lose herself completely in the character to portray her realistically. I wonder if this also applies to writing—that if you get too wrapped up in your characters, it leads to bad writing, and so you have to keep a certain emotional distance between yourself and them; or whether maybe the converse is true, and losing yourself in your story helps you write realistically and with greater sincerity. I’m going with the latter strategy for now, as I’m not much good at distancing myself.

Now the good news. I’m nearing the halfway point with my book, both narratively and, erm, spatially (i.e., in terms of the size of book I had imagined), at just over 40,000 words. Also, I decided to put in a gratuitous sex scene, to make it more fun and interesting and to help make up for the depressing part that’s coming. (Yay for gratuitous sex scenes!) I’d never written one before, so that was interesting. Apparently, much more experienced writers than me find these hard to get right. I found it funny in the linked-to article that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is on the list for worst sex scenes in fiction, given that I thought one or two of those in One Hundred Years of Solitude were hot as all get-out. No quarrel with Ian McEwan’s Atonement being on the list of good ones, though.

Life offers its small consolations. In the past year I’ve spent lots of time and postage submitting essays to literary magazines, and usually get back only form rejections. But every now and then, I’ll get rejected with a personal note from the editor saying they liked my piece even though they weren’t able to take it, and they’d like me to send more (as if I wouldn’t have anyway). I love these personalized rejections, which are almost as nice to get as acceptances. Yesterday I got a particularly effusive one, calling the essay I’d submitted “a revelation.” It was so nice that I did a happy dance in the living room for fifteen minutes while my two-year-old, Amandine, looked on and giggled and kept asking for “mo, mo.” And to top it off, after dinner, Amandine told me I had beautiful hair. (Okay, what she actually said was, “Mommy, you boo-ful … hairs,” and stroked my hair while she said it.) So that was a good day.

But what I really meant to post about this week is totally unrelated to any of that, namely, qualifiers. Qualifiers are the bane of my existence, or at least of my writing, which seems to make up a good portion of my existence these days. Qualifiers are the reallys and verys, the almosts, sort ofs, nearlys, hardlys, maybes, quites, rathers, extremelys, somewhats, sometimeses, oftens, frequentlys, perhapses, significantlys, totallys, completelys, trulys, genuinelys, of courses, and so on, that try to creep into prose at every turn. I try to write 1,000 words a day on average. Lately, I find myself going through my day’s word quota afterwards and crossing out qualifiers, which can easily reduce the word count to three-quarters of what it was. I exaggerate, but it’s surprising how persistently these little buggers infect my writing, how little they add, and how hard they are to get rid of.

In talking, I use qualifiers constantly to convey a lack of certainty in my statements. My inner Socrates is always telling me to hedge my assertions to avoid sounding like I know things that I don’t really know. I want to do the same thing when I write, but I end up overusing these verbal hedges and sounding wordy and weak. Conviction counts for so much in descriptive writing—and when I go back through what I’ve written, more often than not I see that the qualifiers are unnecesary.

If anyone has any tips on how to break the qualifying habit, I’d be glad to hear them …

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