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A Trove of Trivial One Liners

treasure chest [1]My hard drive is kind of a treasure chest. I have so many half-developed ideas and stillborn stories (and such a bad memory for them) that every time I poke around in there I find something unexpected, surprising, and fun. That most of this has seen no commercial light of day is a natural function of a long and productive writing life, and a realistic consequence of the good ol’ wheat-to-chaff ratio. Young writers, I think, cling to the fantasy that every word they write is gold – sellable gold – and that none of it will go to waste. Young friends, I tell you from my heart, most of it goes to waste (see above: wheat-to-chaff ratio). That’s not a good thing and it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing that is. Writing is messy and writing is inefficient. That’s why writing is rewriting, and why every level of development is merely the platform upon which we stand to reach the next level.

I never had the expectation that I would exploit every word I wrote, except in the sense that every word I write – wheat and chaff alike – helps me raise my game. But when you have a hard drive as hoary as mine, some of it is bound to find a second life some time, as for example the list you will find below of words and phrases that define certain conditions of the writing life. 

I don’t remember writing this list. I seriously don’t. But I can guess why I did it. At the time I wrote it (sometime in the late 1990s) I was captivated by the subject of linguistic philosophy, and what I took to be its controlling idea, that to name a thing was to own a thing. The more I could boil complex concepts down to trivial one-liners, I thought, the better off I would be.

So here’s the start – and end – of that list. Whatever inspired me to work on it for a day seems not to have inspired me to work on it for two. Yet, after all these years, many of these concepts still have resonance, and still shine a clarifying light on what we all go through as writers. Stay tuned. I’m going to invite you to invent your own.

ADDICTION CONDITION. A mental state where “have more” equals “need more.”  For writers, success is often an addiction condition.

APOSTROPHE CATASTROPHE. Any spelling or punctuation or usage error about which a sensible writer should know better.

BACKPREDICT. 1. To write a synopsis or outline of a successful movie or book in order to deepen understanding of its structure. 2. Derive early story elements from later events.

BRIDGE WRITING. Text written only to help clarify the writer’s thinking; later to be deleted.

BUTTER ON BACON. Stating the obvious. When a character who’s plainly in love says she’s in love, that’s butter on bacon.

CHANGE BOMB. A story event near the story’s start which destabilizes a character’s pre-existing condition. See also: soft bomb.

CON’T. Contraction of can’t and won’t, a common state of writer’s resistance to tackling the task at hand.

CORE ASSUMPTION. A character’s initial point of view, opposite to the theme.

DETAIL TRAP. Over-explaining unimportant things too early in the story development process.

DEVHELLOPMENT. The brutal slog from story idea to full story outline.

DISCOVERY THRESHOLD. The minimum amount of information a reader needs to get your point or solve the puzzle you’ve posed.

HOPE MACHINE. The mental slot machine where writers keep their dreams.[pullquote]HOPE MACHINE. The mental slot machine where writers keep their dreams.[/pullquote]

MICROCULTURE. The language, vocabulary and history unique to a couple or small group. I know a family that has Thanksgiving pizza.

MONEY SCENE. A highly promotable or innately interesting moment in a story.

NIMWIT. Like a dimwit, only not that smart.

NUKE IT. Kill the idea. Put it out of its misery.

PRE-EXISTING CONDITION. The state we find a character in before the story starts.

RESEARCH TRAP. Do you really need that meaningless factoid or are you really just wasting time?

RESOURCE STATE. A productive mental condition. First enter your resource state; good writing will follow.

ROADRUNNER BEAT. A story moment that’s juvenile and predictable; a cartoon.

‘SCRIPT. Short for manuscript, telescript, film script or stage play; the final draft of anything.

SINGULURAL. A word or phrase with an awkward singular or plural form or both. The audience was (were?) on their (its?) feet – either may be correct, but both are clumsy.

SOFT BOMB. Transitional event spread over time.

SPLS. Sad Pathetic Loser Syndrome, a state of mind common to writers with writer’s block.

THEME. The story’s instruction or call to action, strongly expressed as an imperative.

As promised, here comes the part where I invite you to invent your own. Think about your process. Think about the good parts and the bad parts of your writing day. Think about what makes your writing rise or makes it fall. Then take all that thinking and reduce it to a simple shorthand. Armed with this information, you can easily deepen your understanding of your process and improve your writing life. Here are a few of my latest creations.

BLACK HOLES. Places in my brain where I’m afraid to go, or subjects I’m scared to tackle because I think that doing so will reflect badly on me.

BUBBLE SHOOTING. Playing games instead of writing, an oft-visited procrastination station for me.

FARTOPOLIS. A place where the bad writing lives. Usually, all roads (to good writing) lead through fartopolis.

PIVOT. A new piece of information that triggers a change in emotional state.

PROCRASTINATION STATION. Where I go when I don’t feel like writing.

SHINING. Thinking about what a good writer I am instead of thinking about the task at hand.

“To name a thing is to own a thing?” I don’t know. I don’t even know what I meant by that or where I got it. And I sure don’t know where I got “butter on bacon.” Did I steal it or make it up? Either way, I like it. And when I write it on a sticky note and stick it on my desktop, it reminds me not to belabor the obvious. What do your shorthand expressions remind you to do or not do? Which are your favorites? Which do you share with your friends and fellow writers? Which can you share with us here?

About John Vorhaus [2]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!