A Writer’s Notebook: “Underground history”

Gah! I didn’t write a Writer’s Notebook entry last week!

Actually, I realized this last Saturday, and I probably could have knocked out a quick exercise and backdated it and just hoped no one noticed that I’d skipped a week.  But I gave myself a pass for three reasons:  1) the Writer’s Notebook entry from two weeks ago was massive enough to cover two weeks; 2) I’m doing a writing exercise every day with the River of Stones project; and 3) I realized my mistake in the middle of the night and I was too tired to get up and write something on the fly.

That third reason is lame–I’ve written lots of interesting things in the middle of the night, even while sleepy–but I’m hoping the first two reasons will suffice.

Anyway, here’s this week’s entry, and, below it, the exercise it comes from.

My back is stiff and my feet are asleep. How is that possible? It’s my legs that are folded strangely, bent the wrong way and pressing arteries into corners, my knees aching and my hips out of joint. I’d have expected all of both legs to feel numb, thighs and calves seizing up in electric pain. But it’s just my feet that sizzle and swarm, cold and hot at once as the blood flows back into them.

My neck is so cramped I think the muscles are reaching through my brain to push my eyeballs out their sockets. There’s not enough room in my skull. I can twist my head, swivel my chin down over my chest, rub and stretch and pull on the mucsles, but nothing works. That’s what I get for falling alseep with my head tilted back. I remember now drifting off sitting upright, jerking awake every ten minutes or so the way I did in high school, which is why I finally tipped my head back over the cushion and passed out that way. But I knew at the time it was a damn mistake.

I’m betting you don’t have any of these problems. I’m betting you’re asleep still, curled up under the blankets there in the dark. Hell, you’re probably not curled up at all–you’re probably splayed across the whole damn mattress like you’d dripped there from the ceiling, limbs every which way, whatever way they fell, any way you please. You’re probably using both pillows, too, your head nested between them like a crash victim, your neck stabilized and relaxed, no reason to cramp at all.

And you think I’m supposed to learn some sort of lesson from this. Like I’m some kid in time out, and if I sit here in this chair long enough I’ll realize the error of my ways, or at least get bored and discomforted into apologizing. But to hell with that, I say. Tonight I’m crawling into that damn bed and I know I’m too heavy for you to push me out again, so if you don’t like it, the chair’s all yours.

This one’s complicated, so bear with me.  Actually, the exercise is fairly simple–I’ve just made it complicated.

The exercise comes from Brian Kiteley’s online list, which is excerpted from his book The 3 A.M. Epiphany.  I’m using exercise #7, “Underground history”:

Reread your own older fiction—one story or as many as you want to. Find the ten most common words from this fiction (excluding small and uninteresting words). Use these words as hidden titles for ten paragraphs of prose[…].

Never content to leave a good exercise alone, though, I toyed with the process a bit. So here’s what I did:

I dug up the three earliest short stories I have on this computer (my earliest dates from some time in high school, maybe `91 or `92; the other two I wrote a few years later, maybe `94 or `95), and I used the collective 10,000 words there to find my words.  (I also picked only three words, instead of ten.)  As Kiteley notes in the exercise, “Choosing these ten words is obviously going to be somewhat subjective, unless you have a program that allows you to do some of the work for you,” but that’s exactly what I did–I fed all 10k words into MS Excel and sorted them alphabetically, ditched all the articles and pronouns and such, and then counted up how often the rest of the words occurred.  That still left a lot of words to consider, though, so I just grabbed the repeated words objectively, as they caught my eye.  Then, because looking at all those words had burned out my eyeballs, I took the list to my wife and, without explaining what I was up to, asked her to pick three words at random.  She chose “chair” (10 occurrences), “tree” (8 occurrences), and “sleep” (6 occurrences).

Later, I realized I’d already essentially used “tree” in today’s Small stone, so for this exercise, I just used “chair” and “sleep,” and because they were already working together in my head, I just wrote the whole thing around both those words, instead of doing a paragraph apiece.

Still, it worked out fine, I think.  Nothing brilliant here, but the point of any exercise is to generate writing, and I wrote, so, mission accomplished.

All that word counting produced some interesting collateral results, though.  For instance, between the three stories, I wound up using the word “God” 58 times–it was the most frequently used word outside of be verbs, pronouns, articles and prepositions.  The most used word was, of course, “the” (515 occurrences), followed by “and (354) and “I” (270).  The most-used nonstandard word after “God” was “know” (54), which makes me wonder how many times I used the expression “God knows!”

I once knew a professor who (preposterously, I thought) had what he considered a magic ratio of “be verbs” in any piece of writing:  he insisted that “be verbs” should account for no more than 2% of a total word count.  Where he came up with that number, I don’t know, and I’m mistrustful of any arbitrary limitations on writing, but it does pay to avoid the easy words whenever possible, and “be verbs” are often a sign of lazy writing.  So I was interested to see that the 10k words of these early, early stories contain a total of 297 be verbs, which is roughly 3.4%.  Apparently, I was pretty lazy 15 or 20 years ago.

Another interesting note:  two of the three stories are in first person, yet of all the stories, dialogue included, first-person singular pronouns totaled 415, whereas third-person singular came in at 602.  Also noteworthy: I used three times as many masculine pronouns as feminine, yet the only third-person story has a female central character.  Not sure what happened there.

Anyway, that’s all the number crunching I have right now.  But at least I’m back on track with the Notebook.  See you all next week–I promise!

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: “Underground history”

    1. Hi, Miriam! Thanks for the comment!

      A writer’s notebook is whatever the writer needs it to be. In my case, I keep two: a handwritten notebook full of scribbles, sketches, notes, observations, drafts, character names, and anything else creative that occurs to me during the day; and this online version. The online version is the manifestation of my conviction that writing exercises benefit the writing process; I’ve committed to trying at least one writing exercise every week, which I post on Fridays. I’ve missed a few times over the last year, but only a few. The “official” introduction to this Writer’s Notebook is on my Writer’s Notebook tab, but the actual introduction–in which I explain in more detail the impetus for this project–is on my first WN blog post.

      Loving your blog, by the way, especially the Zen-related posts!

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