R gave me a book for Christmas, The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss. As soon as I saw the wrapped present under the tree, I knew what it was. I showed great self restraint, IMO, in not unwrapping it while he was out, reading it, and wrapping it back up again, because it was a short book that I really wanted to read and I could easily have read the whole thing while he was out to dinner with a friend. However, I did show said self-restraint, opened it happily on Christmas morning, and on the evening of Christmas Day, post- much good food and movie watching, I lit some candles in the bathroom and settled into the tub with my new book. (And a chocolate martini. It was that kind of day. 🙂 )
On page 2, Auri grins.
If you haven’t read his previous books that won’t mean anything to you, but Auri is a mysterious, mystical waif of a girl who lives in the sewers (more or less). A delicate wisp, dancing to her own beat, fragile, living a precarious life, fey and maybe even insane. Or at least that’s how I remembered her.
But she grins?
It struck me as incongruous. A grin is such a jovial expression. Grins belong to flirtatious boys, amused storekeepers, practical jokers, even maybe the bullies in a high school setting when delivered with a hint of malice. But Auri?
I shrugged it off and kept reading. Maybe Auri really is a grinner. She’d already smiled once so maybe this grin is just measuring her delight — a way of saying that she’s not just happy, but really, really happy. I can live with that.
On page 5, she grins at herself in her mirror. Okay. Apparently she’s very satisfied with how she looks. Not just pleased, but ever-so-pleased. But I paused and wondered — like a Halloween pumpkin grin? Like a smile so wide it could break her face grin? A grin is a big expression.
But who really notices a grin? Words like grin, smile, look, shrug, frown, said — they’re background words. Your eyes fly over them as if they weren’t there and if it weren’t for the fact that Auri just didn’t feel like a grinner to me, I’m sure I wouldn’t even have noticed that she was doing it again.
On page 9, she grins again. Three times. She grins and snatches up a bottle. She grins and kisses the bottle. She grins and shivers a little. On 10, she does it again. On 11, she grins in the very first line. And then she does it a second time only a few paragraphs later!
Needless to say, she keeps grinning. I didn’t keep count and I didn’t track pages, but I noticed every single one of those grins like it was a flat key in an otherwise charming melody. By the last paragraph of the book, which is six sentences long, one of them being, “She grinned.” I was ready to shout “I know!” and throw the book across the room.
But here’s what I learned from it. Words like grin are shorthand. Sometimes that’s just what we need. If all I want is to make it clear who’s speaking, using “said” is the simplest way to do so and using, ‘Luke grinned at her. “Are you sure?”‘ is about the second simplest option. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional grin.
The emphasis has to be on occasional, though. And that’s not easy. Authors learn to watch out for word repetitions, but sometimes it seems impossible. It feels essential to describe an action, to put some bit of stage business onto the page, to give the reader something to see, and as a result, we write lines like “she frowned” and “she shrugged” and yes, “she grinned”. Still, looking at this book as an editor (and frankly, Pat Rothfuss’s copy-editor was seriously asleep at the wheel), almost all of those grins are unnecessary or could be replaced with more interesting phrases.
Furthermore, “she grins” is distancing language. It’s us, looking at her, from the outside. Instead, we as readers could be inside the character. What is she smelling, what is she feeling, what is she hearing, what is she seeing? The best parts of this book do exactly that. When Auri loses something important to her, she could have frowned. Instead, Rothfuss wrote, “The thought of leaving Foxen in the dark was enough to put a fine, thin crack straight through her heart. To lose him after all this time…”
Resolution for my own writing: fewer grins, more fine, thin cracks.
500 words yesterday, as well as two blog posts and lots of emails. Today, too much thinking about writing, but two blog posts totaling over 1500 words, still on top of the email, about to go out to dinner to celebrate my son’s birthday, and I at least tweaked some stuff in my yWriter file. And it will get easier when R goes back to school and I can have my real bedroom back!