Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XII

Among the many verbs and nouns connoting action and attitude that can and should appear in a story, one intransitive verb in particular should not appear.  Even were a character to act upon or behave in a manner suggested by the verb, that character ought nevertheless to do so aggressively, with a distinct tinge of panache.

The verb I call to your attention is dither, which is a perfectly good word to use when one of your character refers to another.  Oh, stop dithering.  Do something.  But dither is not such a lovely word when you, acting as author, use it.  John dithered, a description you might think to augment with an adverb, John dithered fretfully, thus compounding the error, writing yourself into an imponderably tight corner from which you are not likely to recover.

Dithering is the kind of risky business in which a writer, however avid of publication and recognition, would do well to avoid; in certain parts of the world, dithering will result in the ditherer being shoved aside by non-ditherers who are intent on boarding a subway car.  Although a writer may be in fact much in need of that first refreshing brace of coffee of a morning, dithering in a line at Starbucks is likely to effect a sense of being left stranded, even sworn at.

If you must dither at all, dither in a book store where you will appear torn between or perhaps even among a number of attractive choices, allowing you to be seen as someone who cannot choose between two philosophical giants or an equally intriguing pair of opposites in the world of poetry.  Dithering in a restaurant can project an image of a finely educated palate, agonizing over the decision involving coquilles Saint Jacques and vol a vent, although in all frankness I must warn you that dithering in a Quiznos or Subway Sandwich Shop will have the reverse effect, leaving you to become immortalized as the writer who could not choose between the six-inch Omega wheat turkey and the six-inch whole grain meatballs and cheese.

Decisions, even those that eventually send you back to rewrite, are every bit as key as dithering is not.  Better to make a wrong active choice than a dither.

I can already hear you asking, when does making a choice become dithering?  The answer comes built into the choice-maker's own awareness of the ticking clock.  I'll probably regret this later, the chooser will say, then go on to make a choice the audience already knows is wrong but nevertheless respects because of its timely delivery.  I just don't know, the ditherer will allow to be tweezed forth like an unwanted facial hair.

We can forgive any number of infractions, social, political, or literary, but we cannot admire much less can we respect dithering.  But there is a catch here:  Using a ditherer as a person you intend the reader to dislike is opening you to the accusation of using a cliche, loading the deck, traveling a well-worn path, thus this brief nudge of a reminder that the less dithering informs your story, the more likely your story will carry itself, mistakes and all, to a place where it resonates with volition, intent, and their remarkable side-kicks, consequences.

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