Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Twenty-Five Most Used Words in Novels

I'm only just beginning my fall down the rabbit hole of The Readies, by Bob Brown, but I'm in awe of his playfulness, fervor and intelligence. The Readies was written in 1930. Brown was way ahead of his time. I'll leave it at that. You can do your own research.

Yesterday my brain twitched on this tidbit of fascinating information shared in The Readies: According to statisticians, in a novel of 80,000 words the following twenty-five are used the number of times indicated:

The: 5,848
Of: 3,198
And: 2,624
To: 2,339
A: 1,696
In: 1,693
That: 1,076
It: 973
Is: 970
I: 924
For: 828
Be: 677
Was: 671
As: 626
You: 620
With: 582
He: 544
On: 514
At: 498
Have: 494
By: 480
Not: 471
This: 458
Are: 434
We: 423

Only 50,339 to go and you've finished your novel! What I wonder is how this list has changed over the course of eighty years. There's a distinct lack of feminine pronouns. Then I wondered - could a novel be written without these words? They do comprise more than a third of the novel. Hm. I wonder if I could write anything without those words? I managed this bit of strangled prose:

Valentine glitter winks, sparkles from her closet shelf. Hearts collide against Halloween – no - they collude. Winter’s coats hunch over hangers, bamboozled. Her daughter’s paper ghosts fold into halves, then quarters, pressed flat under years. Ornaments wrapped, tissue coddled, become babies. She sighs, unwraps joy. What does everyone else save? Another season. Another holiday. Laughter scotch-tapes itself, wallpapers their rooms. Closets emptied, they smile.

Oh how I love a good challenge! The words I found myself wanting to use the most were: as, of, with. Some of the poet's tools for detail work. I recalled my list of prepositions, once recited while standing at the side of my 8th grade school desk: "about, above, across, after, against ..."

It's surprising to me that "are" is used 434 times, but "be" gets and ranking of 677, and "is" racks up 970 uses. I guess the past is the past, present tense is where it's at, and the future, well, according to the New York Times,Bob Brown saw it clearly.*

* I don't totally agree with the New York Times correlation between what Brown imagined and the Kindle. I believe he was thinking more in terms of cinema. Words as characters onscreen.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Lowercase a is shy, demure. Uppercase K wears steel-toed boots. Exclamation mark wants to bugger every sentence ending, so lowercase s and e are really nervous all the time. T carries an umbrella wherever she goes no matter the weather, h is tired of everyone sitting on his lap, and Q went on Weight-Watchers and joined a gym, but no one noticed. V mocks everyone and falls over on his side to show how great he is. X likes to hang out with uppercase K in dark alleys. Lowercase w was once dragged into a scuffle with lowercase x who was only trying to be more like his brother. The fermata is totally out of place, but lingers anyway. R lives on the street, b turned 40 last month and checks herself in every reflective surface, and uppercase F never pays his bills on time. M loves everyone, especially w, who she's had a crush on since Kindergarten. She wishes there were less than nine letters between them, and shivers when cats meow, when people feel warm, and when comics burst with wham! Lowercase m isn't very happy with exclamation mark right now, but exclamation mark loooooves the comics. Where is O? Always in love, and O and o blow bubbles all day. They are really out of their heads with joy and glory, or maybe have lost it altogether. The vowels gather in a secret meeting, attempt to oust o and O, but they look so cute together, confused and surprised at the same time. Y is pissed that she's only sometimes a vowel, and hasn't been informed of this meeting, so she wedges herself in wherever she can, including nature's broken branches. "Sometimes Y, my ass ..." she mutters.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Grateful for a Rot House of a Stew of Thought

We were both smiling, but neither of us was feeling happy. We had to smile. It was required of us to beam, to glow, to prattle nonsense through the lemon wedges of our mouths. Then my friend revealed her acidity. "I'm fueled by rage," she hissed through her grin. I felt the same way. We were playing the part of goddesses. We had to be beautiful, happy, serene. We were pissed.

I'm a strong believer in feeling the rage, the funk, the whatever it is you are feeling just to get through it. Sometimes I poke a finger into my wound just to see if it's healing or not and to feel the pain.

The past couple of days I've been in a funk. A nasty mood. A foul place for thinking. A rot house of a stew slopped into a muck and mire. I can make all the positive affirmations I want, write about all the things I'm grateful for, and still the crank continues. Why? Because I'm not acknowledging what is bothering me when I do those things. I am thinking all around it, above it, and below it to get away from the negativity.

I don't believe that if you are positive all the time, you can will away the bad. Smiling helps me, sure, reminding myself of what I am grateful for is excellent, but if I feel angry, I ride it out. I do my best to figure it out. If a friend is sad, I ask her what is the matter, I don't hand her a platitude. Sometimes I forget to do this for myself. Why wouldn't I ask myself what the matter is in order to explore it? You can't force away sadness or anger with a stubborn grin.

Without the negative, there can be no genuine positive. Without feeling what you honestly feel, you'll never figure out who you really are. You'll be a mocking mask slapped onto a cardboard cutout. You'll be greeting card verse.

What's bothered me these past few days? Well, I wrote it out, I rode it out, I talked it out, and now I know two things: I feel better today, and I don't believe in a "fake it til you make it," philosophy. I don't think I knew that about myself before.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Playlet on Doubt

Sheep are pretty brave, actually. They are fallen clouds. They leap even though their legs are stubby, they are generous with their coats, and they don't worry about wolves. The connotation of being like a sheep is negative. Being a sheep is playing the part of the follower - the insipid, luckless doofus who grazes the fields, happy to be herded wherever nudged or prodded. The brain of a writer plays the part of both the sheep and the wolf.

Doubt, that insidious wolf, creeps in everywhere in the writing process, plotting against the sheep.

He first appears lurking around the Seedling of the Idea:

The Sheep:
Incoming great idea! You have to try this! Sit down and write.

The Wolf:
No one has ever done this before. Too risky. No one will get it.

Later, he skulks in the grasses and high weeds of the Process of Writing:

The Sheep:
Well, this isn't too bad. A little harder to navigate than I thought, but kind of fun, even.

The Wolf:
Absurdist. No one will get it.

Finally, he growls and wiggles his ass for a lunge at the First Draft:

The Sheep:
Sharing is good. Get it off your desk. Let someone else read it. You finished! Yay!

The Wolf:
Whoop-de-doo. Your readers are never going to get it. It's not even what you imagined it would be.

How do I want this playlet to end? I'm not sure it ever does, but if I had my druthers ...

The Sheep:
I'm going to end this play once and for all.

The Sheep binds up the Wolf, shaves off all his fur, felts it in the washing machine, and knits herself a sweater.

The Wolf:
I'm cold!

The Sheep:
Ha ha ha! What nice fur you have!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Where a Shell Belongs

Shells are teachers, and we put them in the bathroom. Right now there are two Ziploc baggies of shells on our kitchen counter. They hold their beachy breath and wait for us to open them. It seems unfair that they go from the sea to the back of the toilet in a bowl that was made in a pottery class.

Last week two friends and I found ourselves on the beach in the late afternoon, up to our waists in the ocean water. We planned to go for a swim, but the ocean had other ideas. It was serving up all sorts of shells - shards and whole. Standing meant getting the soles of our feet stabbed, our ankles and calves pummeled with the ocean's teeth. Oh, what lovely teeth the ocean has! Instead of swimming, we started collecting, or trying to collect, what was being served to us.

At first, I tried the "spot and grab" method. A beautiful shell would glimmer under the water, the wave would pass over it, I'd reach down, and voila! It was gone, pulled in by the undertow. After a few disappointing tries with this method I switched to the "blind scoop." The wave passed over, I scooped up whatever I could in two hands, and then sifted through for goodies. I found beautiful, tiny bits of seaglass and perfectly smoothed stones this way that I wouldn't have found otherwise.

Wendy noticed our different collecting methods. She had the "spot and grab," Anne pressed herself down into the water against the thrash of waves to seek out whatever she could find, and I continued with my blind scooping. We all stole something from the ocean.

I thought about how when writing something large, you try all of these methods. There's the initial idea - the spot and grab, and then the blind scoop, and finally you press yourself into the project, against all the waves and salt and potential jellyfish. I'm still in the blind scoop mode with a project I'm working on, and will be happy to submerge myself in its last pages. The ocean reminded me to be patient - to let go of that beautiful idea because it is already washed away and replaced by other ideas. It reminded in a fatherly way. It roared, "Look, look, you numbskull! Look at what you've already picked up in your hands!"

These shells belong in the ocean, not in a baggie, not on the back of the toilet. But here they are, all landlocked - on my desk.