What’s Magic in a Million Words?

In addition to being a ‘word’ person, I’m also a ‘numbers’ person.  So when I hear someone say, “You have to write a million words before you will have something good enough to publish,” both sides of my brain start to fire up.  Can you imagine?  A magic number to work toward, and when you reach it all your writing dreams will come true.  Sounds wonderful, but I know it doesn’t work like that.

Nonetheless, a lot of people seem to be striving to meet that magical number.  Do a search on the internet for the phrase ‘write a million words’ and you’ll see what I mean.  So what’s the allure?  I think the draw is due to several messages the phrase communicates:

1)       Practice Makes Perfect – This centuries old bit of common sense is motivation to keep at it and work to improve at what you do.  I would modify it to say, “Practice, with feedback, makes perfect.”  You can do a lot of your own editing to improve the quality of your work.  However, getting feedback is important in order to avoid the blind spots you get from being too close to your own writing.  Don’t take the ‘million word’ phrase too literally and wait till you hit the one million mark to show your work to anyone.  The better way is to get feedback as you go and be open to constructive advice.

2)       Persevere – Rejection comes with the job so don’t take being turned down by publishers and agents personally.  If you self-publish and don’t gain an audience, don’t take that personally either.  There are many reasons why your work might not be accepted.  You may never find out the reasons, and if you do it may not make any sense or have anything to do with your talent.  So when a rejection letter comes in, resolve to keep going and continue on your writing path.

3)       It’s Helpful to Have a Goal – No matter how much you love writing, there may be times when you can use some extra incentive to keep you moving along.  Getting to the million word mark can be a fun way of challenging yourself, or creating a friendly rivalry between writers.  Organized events such as the National Novel Writing Month offer support and resources to help and encourage you toward your goal.

Ultimately, writing is a journey with no fixed end and no roadmaps to sure things or dead ends.  If things don’t happen for you in the first one million words, maybe it will happen in the second.  Author Ursula K. Le Guin said “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”  Enjoy your journey, wherever it may take you.  That’s where the magic lies and the only person who can stop it is you.  Don’t let it end too soon.

Six Sensible Rules for Suspense

Amy stirs, half asleep and freezing cold with a putrid taste sticking to her throat. In the distance, her two dogs bark frantically. Much closer, the wind whistles in the fog and gently brushes her cheek, and that puzzles her…?

Amy wakes with a jolt and shivers with fear. “Glenn!” she calls, coughs and shoves the lump that is her husband. “Glenn! There’s a fire! Glenn, wake up!”

Glenn feels flaccid and clammy, and just snores through the thick smoke now rushing over them. She looks towards the dresser and the digital clock but sees only dark. “Glenn!” She turns him over, her voice hysterical, harsh. She swallows clawing smoke and stale booze. Glenn snores. Amy tries to get out of bed but the smoke and the heat beat her back.

“Brian! Bria! Jump!!” What was a putrid, cold fog only seconds ago is now an oven pouring out suffocation. “Jump!!”

She pulls the comforter over her head and thinks of her children as she clasps her throat. The smoke presses down and crushes all hope. She hears the roar of a locomotive drown out the dogs, and she whimpers with her last breath, “Please, jump!”

What did you see in this scene?

Did you see a cold, dark, two-story house on fire? Did you see Amy’s dogs downstairs barking to get someone’s attention? Her kids asleep, already dead, or hopefully jumping for their lives? Did you see fire roaring up the stairwell? A desperate woman trying to wake a drunk? Did you see Amy surrender to the sheer weight of her circumstances? In less than a minute, did you see what mattered most in her all-too-brief life?

If so, you’ve got a pretty good mind’s eye because the entire 60-seconds was clouded in smoke.

Amy couldn’t see a thing! She coughed the smoke, heard the dogs, the wind and the fire, felt and smelled the inebriated Glenn and the putrid of something toxic. Jump shouted that it was a two-story house, wind and roar brought smoke and fire rushing up the stairs. Stale booze gave you a taste of why Glenn was not waking up. Not one word was written for the eyes. If the only sense Amy had were her vision, she would have died in her sleep like Glenn. End of story. And that is exactly what writing to the other senses does – it wakes up your reader, it lets them see through the smoke.

The senses are five vital, but very different, utensils in the writing’s toolbox. Here are my six sensible rules for how to use them correctly.

General Rule: “Taste and touch follow what we see. Smells and sounds precede our sight.”
Where you can show better tension, wordplay becomes fuel for your fire and you’ll want to break the rules. That’s the fun bit, but that’s not the first rule.

First Rule. “Don’t stop to smell the roses in first draft, just get your hero to safe harbor.” In other words, don’t let the minutia bog you down; finish the scene. Finish your novel.

It is only natural for the suspense author to write through his/her eyes because we envision our story as we write it – We make this stuff up! In first draft, it is much easier to just paint the broad strokes while our fireworks are still in the air. Fair enough. But use your second draft to color in all the tiny, mind-searing, sparkling bursts with precision. Not just: “Stole a Jet Ski and zigzagged out into the storm dodging bullets.” (1st draft). Let your readers: “Inhale the salty air, feel the rumble of the engine through her thighs and hold on tight as the Jet Ski slams-hard-against-the-surf, while Sluggo’s bullets wiz past her ear.” (2nd draft). Save those salty, rumbling details for when you’re more relaxed and can take the time to study the scene carefully, with all five of your senses functioning freely.

Second Rule: “Cleverly, but clearly, break the rest of the rules where it adds suspense.” Do this where it adds more tension, comedy or calamity.

“Just slept on it funny,” he gruffed and limped away.

That works, in a lame way, because people don’t usually sound gruff when they are trying to be funny (or use the word lame when trying to be serious), and your actions or characters will become indelible.

Third Rule: “Hearing delivers more than just sound.”

Sound is the hardest of all the senses to fool on the page, so it should be the easiest “other” sense to write to. Be careful: sound is also the only sense that we rely on with impunity. The other four work in harmony, they confirm or cancel each other out, but sound is a lone actor in the dark. Because we have two ears, we also get a sense of direction and distance which adds to the tension. When a sound beckons your character, and before they turn their eyes in that direction, their mind has already played back memories of what that sound – or voice – meant. Just reusing that sound and response in a later chapter can recall all the trauma in the first scene. You can now draw comparisons to that first scene without saying another word, without compromising pace or tension.

“A shot rang out! He heard the cock of an antique Winchester and knew who was behind it.” (2nd scene – I’ll let you color in the first scene.)

Your character will trust their ears before their eyes. They’ll likely first crouch, scream or run, or smile, laugh or pucker up based on what they hear, then see if they’re right. Or horribly wrong!

Horrific sights should freeze your mortal characters to a point where they cannot move. Frightening sounds should have them running first, thinking later.

Fourth Rule: “Touch and taste are secondary to sight.”

These two senses always confirm what we see. Well, almost always. Walk, barefoot through a dark cave and stepped on something cold and slimy that went hissss, and clearly you see a snake. But that only works in a dark cave, and because our ears confirmed our worst fears.

Touch and taste we can take as one because we rarely use them together – popcorn being one exception; sex being another. But touch and taste only work in only a limited way on the page because these two senses are internal by nature. If what you write is out of sync with dear reader’s preconceived notion, your tasty words will not be enrichment at all. One woman’s yum is another’s woman’s yuck.

No vegetarian is going to agree with your “mouth-watering” response to the question, how was the beef Wellington? (1st draft) But what if your character’s response were instead, “She rolled her eyes, held her tummy and tongued her lips.” (2nd) Carnivorous readers might still salivate, but your vegetarian audience might see gag me and make me throw up from the same three motions. And you haven’t carelessly taken a segment of your audience out of the story. That’s what I mean by be careful with taste and touch.

Generic feelings (kiss, hold, hug), and tastes (salty, cold, hot) work best with strong adverbs like humongous and dainty. Unique feelings (itching, stinging, horrifying) and tastes (briny, zesty, spicy) work best on their own.

Fifth Rule: “When in doubt, follow your nose.”

Scent is a different breed of cat all together. In my piece at the beginning, it is the smell of smoke that awakens Amy, and she has full command of all of her senses within a heartbeat. We cannot ignore the scent of fear. If something foreign gets past our nose, our subconscious instantly knows that it can’t let anything happen to our breathing. Scent is the only one of the five sense that will wake us up from a deep sleep with our adrenalin already pumping.

Scents stick with us, too. Some, forever…. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and take in memories like: That wonderful aroma of Grandma’s kitchen; your wedding corsage; your dog after it caught the skunk. If the last one of these got you to blink or your nostrils to twitch, I rest my case. “Wonderful aroma” and “skunk” don’t fit. But, you knew that.

So the only trick here is to use scents correctly, by appeal. Fragrances heighten a sensual scene, or turn the screws on uncertain moments. Aromas can instantly cast light on the dark, or call forth a forgotten memory. Odors tell time’s passage, they foretell danger down the road and quickly time-stamp past, traumatic events.

Sixth Rule: “Men focus on the hunt; women gather on the periphery.”

Which brings us to the eyes. Writing descriptive suspense for the eyes is as easy as carrying on a conversation with a close confidant. Just vividly put on the page what your mind’s eye beholds and don’t hold back. If you’re writing in third-person, imagine your friend is telling you instead.

Only, it is important to remember that your men and women will see things differently. And that difference is primordial. And that primordial instinct is the very essence of believable suspense.

In pre-historic times, the male hunters depended on silence to sneak up on their prey. They used their two eyes together to fix on the distance needed to throw their spear and kill dinner. Another hunter knew exactly what this man was thinking by just following his gaze. Gatherers – the women, children and one-eyed old men – depended on making noise and using their voices to scare the wild things from the berry bushes. For protection, women used their two eyes to focus on two or more things at the same time. They learned to depend on their peripheral vision to spot movements off to the side. One wrong move and they’d be stung or bitten, or become the dinner.

Those two unique survival traits are still in our eyes today. Men still look straight into who or what has their mental focus, and women are still much quicker at spotting movement on the periphery while looking you in the eye.

That’s true about not only the lady’s deep, baby-blue, mischievous, sparkling, haunting, adorned, oval, cat-like, vicious, emerald, crying, smiling, laughing, sad, happy or otherwise adorable eyes that we can clearly see, but her mind’s eye, too. Her sixth sense is broad. His is keen.

Six Sensible Rules for Suspense
1) Don’t stop to smell the roses in first draft, just get your hero to safe harbor.
2) Cleverly, but clearly, break the rules where it make more suspense.
3) Hearing delivers more than just sound: direction; distance; friend-or-foe.
4) Touch and taste are secondary to sight.
5) When in doubt, follow your nose.
6) Men focus on the hunt; women gather on the periphery.

Next Month: Information dumps. Those lumps of facts and timestamps that precede your storyline are so often the hidden, root cause for your character’s actions. Until you get them on the page your story remains convoluted where you want to be clear. But factoids are just the canvas, not the painting. You can’t allow them to slow down the action and quick pace that is suspense! They’re essential, and, at the right moment, need to be clearly conveyed, but it doesn’t have to read like a rap sheet. Next month we’ll look at how to backfill your story without slowing down the action.

More Voices from the Past

When I was thinking about my blog post for April, I had several ideas. But one gripped me and wouldn’t let go. It came from other letters I’d read and copied when I was in California last month. This time they were from my mother’s side of the family.

In Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hitler was annihilating the Jews as fast as he could. Grandma’s oldest brother, Abram Bonomi, was Jewish, born in Romania but an Italian citizen. He been knighted by the king of Italy and now he was stuck in Beirut without papers, and trying desperately to get to his family in the United States.

Grandma and Papa were doing everything they could think of to get him a visa to come to America. They weren’t having much luck. My parents were dating at the time and my father offered to help.

The letters are so frustrating. Apparently my father had written to his senator, Hiram Johnson from California, asking for help and saying that he and my grandparents would be financially responsible for Abram when came to the United States.

On February 5, 1941, Leslie Reed, the American Consul in Athens, Greece, writes back that “The records … show that on two occasions during … 1940 Mr. Bonomi called at the Consulate General requested a visitor’s visa to proceed to the United States for the purpose of travel and for visiting his sister Mrs. Clara Wein, 1855 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco. In the course of these interviews it was established that Mr. Bonomi had no fixed domicile in Greece and no occupation or interests which would require his return to this country or to Roumania, where he had formerly been in business, and that as a retired businessman with near relatives in the United States the inducements would be rather toward strengthing his ties in the United States and prolonging his sojourn there. Accordingly it was decided that Mr. Bonomi could not qualify under the regulations for non-immigrant visas.”

From reading the letter, I get the impression that the American Consul thinks he has all the time in the world. It doesn’t seem to faze him that there’s a world war going on, Greece is falling to the Nazis, and this man, as well as others, desperately needs to get out.

On June 10, 1941, four months later, never having been contacted by Leslie Reed, Abram writes from Beirut “My Clara dear, my dear Josephine (my mother), my dear Julius” that “the Palestine Government refused me the entrance visa, as there arrived a disposition from the Foreign Office, not to accept any Rumanian, who left after February 15th.”

He says he cabled my grandparents in San Francisco on June 2 but received no answer back. He “cannot continue to remain here, as my means are very anemic and I am not allowed to accept a position because I am a stranger. Besides, I am continually asked to leave the country, as they do not want us.”

He goes on to say that “The Mexican Counsul over here cannot understand why you did not succeed yet. If I get an engagement over there with a Company which needs me as specialist, the immigration visa is quickly granted. In case one wants to go there as a tourist for six months, he must have over there a deposit of 200 pesos for his monthly expenses (that means about 40 per month, total 240) and the visa is quickly given. If somebody goes there for six months, he easily can arrange to remain more. All other ways are difficult – he says.

Well! I’m sure you know quite well what can be done. Otherwise nothing new. I hope you are all well.

With best wishes,


After that there are more letters to the person in charge of visas in Beirut, to the representative from California, etc., etc., etc.– all very bureaucratic and proper documenting the fact that they were doing nothing.

I keep thinking, what must it have been like for him, older, in his sixties, running out of money, not allowed to work, knowing he had family in the U.S. that wanted him and would take care of him and no one, no one would give him the paperwork he needed?

Only when they were prodded by Washington, would they do something. But only if Abram would come them. How was he to know that if he came back a third time, he might actually get the precious papers? They never looked for him, assuming he was no longer there. But he was for four more months at least, February through June and maybe even longer.

During this time, Grandma and Papa were frequently writing letters to Abram in Beirut, to the Red Cross and sending telegrams.

The saddest letter is the last one, written to Abram in care of the “Hotel Diana, Ekali (Athens), Greece, Europe”. My mother writes how much she misses him and of her coming marriage in August. My grandmother writes how they haven’t gotten any mail from him in a long time and “are very anxious to hear from you.” My grandfather’s ends with “We haven’t heard from you lately and hope to receive good news from you real soon.”

Stamped on the envelope is the message, “Return to Sender    Service Suspended.”

Does your car need a poetic license plate?

Bet’cha you’re a poet and didn’t even know it.

However, ask me if I’m a poet, and my immediate response is no.  After all, poetry is sing-songy rhymes sung by first graders.  Classic poets are older writers spewing stylized language for pages upon pages.  The new wave of poets are hipsters baring their raw, tortured souls for 20 minutes on coffeeshop stages, waxing on the dearth of the human landscape. I’m just a wanna-be hipster, but I do appreciate Spoken Word.  I just don’t “get” a lot of it.

Poetry intimidates me.  I feel pressured to find something meaningful from the long strangling paragraphs of confusing and deep intense emotions.  When I don’t get some passionate, life-changing insight, I feel like a numb, witless slug.  Shakespeare frustrates me because my reading flow is disrupted by looking up too many word definitions.  Again, I’m the imbecile.  Too often, poetry is dissected in a class assignment to study form and intention, not enjoyed for the words themselves.  Poetry becomes work, stale and tedious.  There are ways to make poetry approachable, and that is to have fun.

One of my Top Five Favorite College Projects actually came in a poetry class I took as a junior.  Our assignment had a list of specific rules, including writing in a particular meter with rhythm and using a specific number of words from the glossary provided.  The challenge was the intrigue, and my submission, “To Catch a Frog,” is the only poem I ever committed to memory.  This is the first stanza of the one page poem:

To kiss a frog, some say, may lead

to warts upon one’s foolish head.

So it occurred that fateful eve,

when I was lured to test belief,

departed with my sturdy trap

to catch a frog down Boggy Swamp.

 Poetry can be a space to play and experiment, even for the non-poet writer.  It is fractured storytelling.  You can choose not to follow the traditional rules of grammar or punctuation.  April is National Poetry Month, the NaNoWriMo for poets.  This is the time to celebrate something new or forgotten.

About 14 years ago, I discovered the appeal of haiku. My friend and I traveled to a book expo in New York City.  She is a poet, so it was no surprise that the haiku year caught her eye.  The book features haikus written on postcards and mailed amongst a group of friends.  The poetry form itself presents a limited commitment composing three lines of 5-7-5 syllables.  It is short and structured with some boundaries, thus user-friendly.  Perfect.

We both loved the creativity of it, so we emailed daily haikus to give out Inbox joy and mailed weekend postcards to keep our mailboxes from becoming jealous.  We still do this today, with our subject material less nature-focused and more snippets of life in the style of senryu.photo

I discovered an iPhone app, Heyku, which encourages anyone to post any type of poetry, with the option to add interactive sketches, photos, or sound to each poem. I do not know the size of this online community, but I find it welcoming because I have followers of my poetry.  I feel safe here, and thus more confident in my approach.  You can find me there at d.w.Hirsch, always under the #haiku tag.  Many of my haikus are now posted on Instagram (dwhirsch) where I can become more hipster with the trendy, special filters.  Whatever the format, whether the month is April or beyond, my writing is whimsical and casual, the way I think poetry should be.

Be your own poet.

Express Yourself with the Perfect Word

I remember being a child and responding to my (now beloved) sister’s taunts with the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me.” How anyone ever thought that was an effective way for children to deal with ridicule is a mystery to me. Today it’s more commonly understood that youth and adults on the receiving end of verbal attacks aren’t always able to fend off the pain of negative comments. The problem is so prevalent that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has studied it and identified name-calling and teasing as a form of bullying.[i] Words are extremely powerful.

Considerate communicators, particularly authors, have to choose words purposefully. Words act as building blocks to a story. Stacked together, they impart feelings, inspire or motivate. They determine action, setting, and point of view. They convey conflict and emotion. And they should compel readers to rush ahead one page at a time, one word at a time, to discover the surprises that await them.

As we’re writing our manuscripts, the goal is to be clearly understood. The skill, however, is difficult to achieve, because writers and readers don’t always interpret things the same way. Compounding the problem is that a word usually has various definitions associated with it. Consider sanguine. The word means confident, which may be interpreted as a positive trait. It also means bloodthirsty and depicts a more sinister quality.[ii] When writing an article, the author needs to make his intent as clear as possible for the reader. At times, he may actually need to specify the correct attribute—for example, self-assured as opposed to homicidal. My friends who write fiction will not entirely agree. For their creative process, it’s more effective if they show, rather than tell, readers what they mean. They create this understanding through meticulously scripted action, scenery and dialogue. Regardless of the type of writing we do, the underlying premise is that we pay strict attention to the words we use for each of our given scenarios.

History gives us a concrete look at the significance of word choice. Biblical scholars examined Sacred Scripture and identified many different names the Hebrew people used when they referred to God. Each name revealed something important about God’s character. He wasn’t just addressed as God. He was Creator God and they professed thanks to Elohim; He was God Most High and they humbled themselves before El Elyon. He was God Almighty and they praised El Shaddai.[iii] Faithful Hebrew people found one word was inadequate in describing the many qualities of their provider and their relationship with Him. They selected appropriate words as needed—words which reverently reflected their view of God’s sovereignty, omniscience, and love in precisely the way intended.[iv]  Although not everyone will identify with these ancient terms of endearment, I’m certain that God is still adored by many present-day believers with these highly expressive names.

So how does a modern writer figure out which word is best for his given situation? Experience, education, and intuition are part of the answer, and I believe that a good dictionary and thesaurus are essential tools for the author’s toolbox.

DWV word choice articleOne of my favorites is a double volume Webster’s dictionary published in 1951. I bought it secondhand. The burgundy binding appears to be leather, but it’s so worn I can see threads of fabric beneath. It smells a little musty. The spine of volume II has suffered and is a little loose. It’s possible that someone dropped it or simply overused the extra features in the back of the book, where little tabs with descriptive labels are so hard to read that they are no longer useful in identifying the subject matter lying beneath. My treasured reference book simply looks old and feels old. There’s even an image of gray haired Mr. Webster tucked opposite the title page. The whole thing is wonderfully frail, and I appreciate the ambiance and feel that go along with opening the cover and delicately turning the pages.

For DWV articleSince I’ve known Noah Webster all of my adult life, I can’t seem to bring myself to recommend any other dictionary source (although many other good options, including convenient smart-phone apps, do exist). I won’t give up my hardbound set, but I have to say that I most often use the free online version available at Merriam Webster. There you will find expected features, such as spelling, definitions, and synonyms, and some additional perks not available in printed versions.

Interesting online features allow you to answer quizzes, play games, test your vocabulary skills and view video tips addressing common language and writing issues. “The Awkward Case of ‘His or Her’” takes a look at a popular, long-standing dilemma. I also recommend “Ghost Word” to those of you who would like to learn about a non-word that made its way into a 1934 edition of the Webster’s dictionary.

A thesaurus is part of the online site also. It’s extremely helpful during the final stages of your writing, when you’re revising. Look over your manuscript and identify words that you’ve repeated. Don’t tire the reader with redundancy–engage him by finding other terms that describe the same thing. With just a click of your mouse and a few taps at the keyboard, you instantly discover new, more interesting ways to express yourself. The online method is so quick, I have to concede: it negates the “Easiest to use!”[v] marketing claim emblazoned on my 1989 paper thesaurus.

In the creative process, don’t work so hard at being original that you end up compromising your voice. Pick words that you are familiar with and that sound natural to you. Your choice should reflect your personality and reveal subtle information about yourself to the reader. For instance, by reading this article, you should be able to tell that I greatly respect Noah Webster’s legacy.

So whether you prefer books that you can physically rummage through or you enjoy the ease of using electronic tools, make sure you have good reference materials on hand. Then, when you want to entertain your readers with extra pizzazz, you can find the perfect word.


[i] “Understanding Bullying,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013 Fact Sheet, Atlanta, 10 April 2014 <http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/bullyingfactsheet2014-a.pdf.pdf>

[ii] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus, 10 April 2014 <http://www.merriamwebster.com>.

[iii] Michal E. Hunt, “The Many Names of God,” 2003 AgabeBibleStudy.com, 10 April 2014 http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/documents/the%20many%20names%20of%20god.htm>.

[iv] Beth Moore, The Patriarchs: Encountering the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (2005; Nashville: LifeWay Press, 2006) 11-39.

[v] The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus (Springfield: Merriam-Webster Inc, 1989) spine.

Fig1: Noah Webster, image from Harold Whitehall, ed., Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1951) frontispiece.