In six seconds, you’ll hate me.
But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.
From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.
The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.
Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”
Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The
mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”
Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.
Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’s roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”
In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.
Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later). In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph. And what follows, illustrates them.
“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”
Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.
If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others. Better yet, transplant it and change it to: Brenda would never make the deadline.
Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.
Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”
Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.
Present each piece of evidence. For example: “During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”
One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.
For example: Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take…”
A better break-down might be: “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”
A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.
Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.
No more transitions such as: “Wanda remembered how Nelson used to brush her hair.”
Instead: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”
Again, Un-pack. Don’t take short-cuts.
Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.
Get them together and get the action started. Let their actions and words show their thoughts. You—stay out of their heads.
And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”
“Ann’s eyes are blue.”
“Ann has blue eyes.”
“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”
Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures. At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.
And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for: “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”
Please. For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use thought verbs. After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.
For this month’s homework, pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by Un-packing it.
Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing. Be ruthless.
“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”
“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”
“Larry knew he was a dead man…”
Find them. After that, find a way to re-write them. Make them stronger.”
if you’re ever not sure if someone is paying attention to you, casually slip the word ‘potato’ into your sentence
X-rays do not show the scars the illness leaves on us
They only show bones
But what about hearts?
Blood tests cannot measure the nights
You spent awake
The number of pills in your bottle
Will never determine
How sick you are
Sometimes pain is visible
every medicine on the market is like
pros: you’ll stop coughing
cons: you might die
Remember several weeks ago when blogger and writer Jincey Lumpkin called Miley Cyrus a feminist icon? Outspoken Black feminists took her to task for ignoring Miley’s exploitation of Black women. The backlash was so fierce that Jincey apologized.
Fast forward to November 13th, an ordinary day made extraordinary by the declaration of Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” as a feminist anthem and her video as a “genius” satire of pop videos. The video swerves into Miley’s lane featuring a relatively covered pop singer surrounded by scantily clad Black women. It features close-ups of Black women twerking, a long-standing hip hop dance for which has bizarrely been given credit Miley Cyrus. Lily Allen herself claims it’s satire but, given her iffy take on the black female body during a spat with Azlia Banks and the lyric “I don’t need to shake my ass for you because I have a brain,” timed right as one of her Black dancers bends over, it’s unclear what she’s satirizing, exactly. What is clear is that Jincey should have never apologized. Miley Cyrus IS a feminist icon and now, so is Lily Allen. They are feminist icons, and that feminism is White, cis, well-to-do and disingenuous.
Black women have been fighting for space in feminism since Sojourner asked anti-abolitionist suffragists “Ain’t I a woman?” There is a long, sad, and complicated history of white women being active participants in the (ongoing) colonization and exploitation of Black and brown women the world over. Funnily enough, Lily Allen sings in her slut-shaming “feminist” anthem “We’ve come a long way, and if you don’t see the sarcasm in that, you’re missing the point.”
We see this history come out to play when mainstream feminism shuns Black celebrities for the very things they laud their White peers for. So far, the list who gets the feminist badge looks very Caucasian and contradictory. Miley Cyrus is a feminist icon for getting naked. Lily Allen is a feminist for slut-shaming Miley Cyrus.
With this happening so frequently, it begs the question: what is the standard for mainstream feminism when it comes to claiming pop singers and celebrities?
It seems that any white celebrity who is both successful and female gets branded as some sort of feminist whether or not she has even called herself one. Looking at the low standard for who gets to be a feminist pop icon, I’m left wondering why Rihanna hasn’t gotten her badge yet. Rihanna has done more work in the field of feminism than any of the pop stars in her age group. She quite eloquently discussed rape and rape culture in her Man Down video. She chose to address domestic violence in her “We Found Love Video.” Most recently she centered the female gaze AND celebrated the athleticism of strippers in her Pour It Up video. Since the infamous domestic violence incident, Rihanna has made a commitment to live her life on her terms. It permeates her every choice, especially the ones we, the public, do not like. That alone is a powerful statement to other survivors of domestic violence, like myself.
All Miley had to do was sit on a wrecking ball, naked.
While almost every White pop star gets rewarded a feminist badge, the list of who mainstream feminism has declared “bad for the movement” looks quite uniform and Black. Beyonce suffers from internalized misogyny. Nicki Minaj is oversexed and suffers from internalized misogyny. Rihanna is a confused, oversexed victim…who suffers from internalized misogyny.
The fact is, Rihanna doesn’t get dubbed as a feminist icon for the very same reasons her white peers do: the black female body is deemed as overtly sexual. So much so Miley Cyrus can derive a sexual identity just by associating with Blackness and Lily Allen can make a critique of hyper sexuality on our backs. Rihanna being Black and female must work from proving she isn’t just a sex object. Miley gets to be naked and feminist because it is presumed that she is “innocent” and that enjoying sex—for White women like her—isn’t the norm, but a revolutionary act. This was the justification for the rape of Black women, the very reason Saartjie’s genitals were carved from her body, to prove our inherently sexual nature and to prove the White woman’s asexual (and therefore, pure) one.
When pop stars are declared to be shining examples of feminism while continuing a legacy of shaming and sexualizing black bodies, mainstream feminism is sending a clear message: we still ain’t women.”
There is a shipwreck between your ribs and it took eighteen years
for me to understand how to understand your kind of drowning.
There are people who cannot be held quietly. There are screams
that are never externalized. If I looked at the photo albums of your
past twenty years, all I would find are decibel meter graphs of
phone calls and the intensity of your silence as you sat
smoking cigarettes in the garage.
There is a shipwreck between your ribs. You are a box with
fragile written on it, and so many people have not handled you
And for the first time, I understand that I will never know
how to apologize for being
one of them.