HWSWAnswers: Expressions and Questions

So I have this thing about “smirk.” Perfectly good word, but I think it’s misused a lot. In my world, good people do not smirk, it’s an asshole kind of expression, condescending, arrogant, superior, and jerkface. It’s being used A LOT in romance fiction right now as a kind of general grin. So a couple of people have weighed in on my distaste for that and an another expression, and I realize I had no idea of how Bob used expressions in his work. (Yes, in spite of writing three books with him. It was awhile ago.)

Jinx said:
I think this would be a good topic for a complete post. There are a lot of facial expressions that are hard to describe without going into a whole lot of detail — a slight smile, a pursed-lip crinkly smile, a sneering look sometimes mixed with smile, a doubtful smile, a “glad you see I was right” smile, a raised eyebrow “oh really?” smile, etc. etc. Smirk and smile both have the same Old English-y root, and I think various authors use the terms sort of differently. The “heroes never smirk” test doesn’t quite do it for me.

Gary said:
If smirks and smirking are reserved for bad guys, or usable by good guys only if immediately followed by an apology, what about The Rolling of One’s Eyes. In Huston’s Uptime Pride and Downtime Prejudice, Our Heroine (Mary) rolls her eyes six or eight times in twenty or so chapters. Then in chapter 21, I noticed in Whiskey Rebellion. Liliana Hart, that Addison Holmes plays craps with her eyeballs as well, rolling her eyes at least twice per chapter. Is there some emotion or attitude for which eye rolling is the only suitable expression? How should it be used, and how often.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used “smirk” in a novel. We instinctively dislike someone who smirks. At least I do. There are things I do overuse and I’m compiling a list. (edited)

YES. Thank you.

I tend to use eyes too much. Also sighs. My current list of words overused for current WIP is: also; then; just; probably; almost; still; all; down; up

I overuse “look” but thats more of a directional thing than an expression. And, oh god, “just.” Sometimes I do an edit just to take out just.

Down and up seem pretty necessary.

I do use snorts of derision in current WIP but it’s a way of comparing characters to see who can do it best. Lisa Livia and the Duchess are in a competition.

For down and up I need to edit things like ‘stood up’ and ‘sat down’. Redundant.

I think “snort” pretty much says “derision.”

They’re not exactly hitting it off

Good point about stood up being redundand. “Sat up” oddly enough is not redundant.

Right. But stood up is.

Yes, stood up is. Good point. I’ll have to look for that.

I think the problem is overuse more than anything, like Gary’s rolling eye example. People roll their eyes all the time in real life, so there’s nothing wrong with using it unless the character does it ALL THE TIME, in which case she’s probably annoying as hell and smirks, too. Nothing wrong with a character woh rolls eyes (although that person is condescending and rude), but they do it all the time, it’s a personality defect.

Yeah. I think I’ve got one eye roll in 50k words right now. That’s probably maxing out.

The key is readers remember things like that and you can jar them out of the story if you overuse.

Yes, that’s exactly the problem. Too many disruptive words don’t deepen the experience for the reader, they remind her that she’s reading instead of experiencing a story.
The first question about how to write facial expressions, though, since writing what the expression is means telling instead of showing through dialogue and action, I think too many specific facial expression words end up being like too many speech tags: disruptive. She quipped.

Yep. Have them do something rather than describe them. Lisa Livia knows the Duchess hates her tapping her nails on the binder. So she keeps doing it.

Yes. Action conveys so much more that description because the reader is watching character in action.

But I also think it goes back to misuse of words.

If you look up the definition of “smirk,” it’s not the same as “grin,” and it’s definitely unattractive. It’s a deal-breaker for me because I dislike people who smirk and I don’t trust writers who use words they don’t know.

Yeah. There are certain words that are just instant turn-offs.

The idea that various writers use terms differently doesn’t work for me; it smacks of “alternative facts.” Part of the beauty of words is their specificity; people who play fast and loose with that are abusing language.

I always search for phrases and terms I overuse. Use the edit function in Word.

It’s like a carpenter saying, “I don’t need to know how to use these tools, I’ll just use them the way I want to,” and then tries to pound a nail with a drill. It might work, but it screws up the drill and makes the carpenter look incompetent. I left a publisher because of this, so obviously I’m a nutcase on language, but words are our stock in trade, they’re what we use to build worlds, and if we misuse them, we end up with shoddy worlds.

Is there still a function in Word that arranges words in order of most used? Because that would be helpful, after you got past “a” and “the” and the main character’s names.

I don’t know about that. I’m sure there is.
I keep finding new tools– when I bother to look for them. I’ve learned if you can think of something you need, someone invented it.

I know. Word has so many bells and whistles, and I use “copy,” “cut,” “paste,” and “save.” Okay, and word count.

I remember the good old days of whiteout.
And manual typewriters.

Those were not good old days. I remember them, too. I did my first master’s thesis with wite-out.

Then, the really good old days of chisel and stone.

I’m surprised you write facial expressions at all. You never have any in real life.

I’m working on it.

Remember Jen Maler telling you that you had the range of expression of Kevin Costner?
Actually, that’s probably the range of expression of my characters since I don’t like describing facial expressions.

Dorothy Parker reference Katherine Hepburn

Gamut of emotion from A to B?


I have no idea if we answered those questions, but I’m not going back in there again because–and it will surprise you to hear this–I lose my grip and start ranting about words.

Next question.

Jeanine wrote:
Have been trying to think of a question to ask you, but mind is tragically blank. Unless to ask you to ask yourselves the question you wish other people would ask you? Or to tell us the best questions you have asked other writers and/or their best responses or advice. (Please forgive grammatical sins in foregoing!) Thanks again!

I generally avoid other people, and Bob makes me look like an extrovert, so this is a tough one for us.
It’s this incessant need to talk to other writers. I don’t get it.
Unless I have a specific question about something I’m working on. “What’s wrong with this book?”

Krissie: “It needs more sex.”

Bob: “It needs more death.”

Mollie: “It needs to be finished.”

I don’t know. Been doing this so long it’s hard to remember things. I know what questions always get asked that don’t have answers, primarily “How do I market my book”. No real answer to that.

I think a good question is when someone asks a question that indicates they really want to know the answer. Especially about their own stuff. Most people don’t want that hard truth.

Yeah, I learned that the hard way. There are several writers who aren’t speaking to me now because I lack tact.

On the other hand, I am the essence of tact.

That’s because you are mainly silent.

THAT is the essence of tact.

I honestly can’t remember any general question I thought of as particularly better than others. They all interconnect.

The one I don’t like is the one Bob doesn’t like, the “What’s selling?” or “How can I market my book?” when they haven’t started writing it. Write the damn book. Finish it, she said hypocritically. Find an agent and let her market it.

Yeah– the business side is crazy. Prefer questions about craft

Part of the problem is that there are so many different writers that there’s really no one-question-fits-all. I’m a big proponent of discovery draft and then rewriting for structure and arc, but not all people are pantsers; some really need to plan everything out first. I am no good for those writers.

Yeah– everyone has to find their own path.

So basically, three questions and we have no clear answers.
Except “smirking” is not something good people do.

Take what you need; leave the rest. Though I have learned that when I hear something that bothers me, it’s usually either because there is a truth there I need to hear or it’s stupid.

Uh, there’s a pretty big gap between those two.

It’s a fine razor’s edge.

I’d say if I hear something about my story that bothers me, then I’d better look at why I’m resisting that.

When I feel something is wrong, I need to address it.

And if I hear something about writing in general that bothers me, it’s stupid.

I remember long ago seeing a recommended list of words to replace “said”: quipped, chortled, snorted, lisped, etc. I also remember the red haze that rose before my eyes as I realized that any idiot could post writing advice on the net.

Said is noted but not noticed. I’ve never had anyone quip, smirk, or lisp.

That’s because you’re a good writer.

That’s right up there with the character who does or says something and and another character laughs and you think “Why? That wasn’t funny.” I generally do not have characters who laugh because of that.

No one laughs. Ever. Because.
Except for dying laughs.

Well, in your books, it’s because people are shooting them. I write romantic comedy. In theory.

Which brings me to my epiphany: There are no good general questions about writing because writers are so different.

Shane hasn’t shot anyone yet. Phoebe has.

I think asking “How do you create” is a good general question, but then one has to see if it resonates with them. I’ve picked up pearls from a lot of writers over the years.

Carpenter’s unarmed? Didn’t Shane shoot somebody in that opening scene? He had a gun.

Nope. He gets shot. Carpenter rides a chair now.

I have no idea how I create. Aside from writing down the people talking in my head, which is a help to no one.

Yes, it is. For those who have people talking in their head, it’s validation.

Also can lead to institutionalization. Is that a word? Spell checker says yes!

That is remarkably positive of you. Who are you and what have you done with Bob Mayer?”

I really enjoyed watching Pretend It’s a City with Fran Leibowitz. Especially talking to Maya Angelou. Two very different types of writers.

Excellent writers. Must watch that.

Plus its about the NYC I grew up in.
Lucky I made it out alive, although some question that.

Okay, the best advice I ever got about writing wasn’t about writing. It was something Maya Angelou said, which I piggy-backed on something Aristotle said. Angelou said (as I remember), “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” That’s why putting the feeling on the page is so important, and why remembering that emotion lives in the body and not the brain is so important. You can think everything is fine, but your body will tell you different, and your body will not lie. (Aristotle said, “Action is character.” Or maybe it was “Character is action,” but you get the drift.)

So there, FINALLY, I answered a question. We can go now.

Yay, us.

We rock. And we’re out of questions.

Very good. Gus is barking. Vet just called and said his thyroid is a little off which explains a lot.

All the best to Gus and his thyroid. Give him a cookie.

He needs one because bad thyroid means he’s starving; more than usual.

Oh, that’s awful.
Give him two cookies.

I will. Take care and stay safe. Sanity is back.

I know, thank God. You, too.

79 thoughts on “HWSWAnswers: Expressions and Questions

    1. Wait, we talked about rolling eyes as something people do, but writers shouldn’t overdo because it makes the character look like a jerk. That didn’t answer it?

      “Is there some emotion or attitude for which eye rolling is the only suitable expression? How should it be used, and how often.”

      Yes, it’s the universal “Oh, come ON” look, and it can be used to show skepticism with a side of sneer. And not too damn often or the character is a jerk..

      1. Okay, then. Good enough.

        Murderbot is a jerk. I’ll bet Murderbot has even smirked (while facing a wall or with a helmet shield in place.)

          1. I’ve done one eye roll in 50k so far. My theory is things like that, if you do it twice, readers notice. If you want them to notice then fine. But if not?

  1. Ok! I think I figured out why the smirk thing doesn’t make me see read. You say good people don’t smirk. But I don’t need my hero/heroine to start out as a good person. I need them to be interesting and good enough, but they don’t have to be all the way good yet. I need responsible smirk usage, not smirk proabition.

    I am having adjective/ adverb problems right now with a client. She hates when I write ” ‘Blah blah blah,’ Sam Smith said, confused.” She wants me to always give a visual description of what “confused” looks like. And sometimes she’s right and it absolutely improves the writing. But sometimes it slows the story down unnecessarily without giving any real payoff. I’ve realized the times it normally doesn’t work is when I’m using that adjective to try and capture tone of voice. Rather than use colorful “said” alternatives like quipped/pondered/etc., or have the most fidgety characters in the history of the universe (there’s only so many times one can clench their fist, sit down, stand up, etc.), or describing someone’s voice as “going up at the end in confusion,” I really do think that using an occasional adjective to express a character’s emotion, which then lets the reader infer their tone of voice, is SOMETIMES your best option.

    Forgive the rant. I’m realizing that I think good writing is about communicating clearly while drawing the reader’s attention to the thing you want them to pay attention to. And I think if a “good writing” rule of thumb is getting in the way of either of those things, it’s ok to ignore that rule in that instance.

    Also, love Pretend It’s a City and that Maya Angelou quote.

    1. I need to go back and look, but I don’t think I said, “Never use smirk.” I said, “Use smirk as the expression it describes, use the word as defined.” I’m pretty sure I did say, “Don’t use smirk for a good person” because in my world, good people are supercilious jerks, but I realize people can change. I just don’t know why anybody would stick around to get to know somebody who smirks. Bleah.

      Okay, look at the dictionary definitions of the word:

      From Oxford Languages:
      smile in an irritatingly smug, conceited, or silly way.
      “he smirked in triumph”
      a smug, conceited, or silly smile.
      “Gloria pursed her mouth in a self-satisfied smirk”

      Or look at Vocabulary.com:

      “A smirk is specific kind of smile, one that suggests self-satisfaction, smugness, or even pleasure at someone else’s unhappiness or misfortune. Smirk can function as either a noun or a verb: “Wipe that smirk off your face. Yeah, well, there’s a reason it’s not “service with a smirk.”

      So somebody who smirks is smug, conceited, and takes pleasure in someone else’s unhappiness. Nope, I am not going to be interested in that character unless I can see a big slap coming his or her way. That person is mean AND dumb.

      1. And the reason that word will continue to be used far more often than makes you happy is that there are lots of mean AND dumb people out there. Look how many of them voted for the Donald.

        1. As long as the word is used correctly, I’m all for it. It’s when it’s used to mean “attractive grin” that I go ballistic.

          1. I wonder if people are equating smirk with “attractive grin” now because of our collective love of anti heroes. I mean, people love Spike from Buffy, find him attractive, and he smirked all the time. Of course, he wasn’t good then, but people still found him attractive. So maybe smirk got all twisted up with attractive for people.

      2. Reading those definitions, I was reminded of the moment in Leverage when the antagonist of the week is being taken away and the Leverage crew is watching with satisfaction. Probably a bit smug, and yes, pleased that the antagonist is unhappy…

        I think they actually call that the “gloat”, but for a moment I couldn’t remember.

        It seems to me that what an expression is called in writing is going to depend on POV, though. If you’re seeing it from the episode antagonist’s POV, it could totally be a smirk. So irritating…to the defeated villain. I think using it indicates more about the relationship between the POV and the character described in that moment than something intrinsic to the character. But that’s just how I would probably read it, I actually don’t recall coming across it often. Just lucky, I guess!

        1. That’s an interesting point. What’s the different between “gloat” and “smirk.” The latter is a facial expression while the former is more of a state of mind–I don’t think “he gloated at her” works–but it’s the same idea, a visible expression of superiority and glee at somebody else’s downfall.

          1. I think there can be good-natured gloating. My siblings did it all the time. For example, my brother might gloat he ate the last cookie (whether or not I actually wanted the last cookie).

            It is not an automatic turn-off for me but if someone is gloating it needs to be made clear if it is good-natures or mean gloating. Smirking is always unpleasant. My brothers never smirked

      3. I hate hate hate it when authors use smirk for protagonists. It throws me out of the story for exactly the reasons you describe. The author is clearly using a word incorrectly and doesn’t even know it. Or the character we think is good may turn bad. This has been going on for years but it seems to me the vast majority of romances I have been reading use smirk incorrectly. It bugs me every time. Especially because I have a fear that popular use will eventually cause a change in definition to make it match the incorrect usage.

        I also get upset with my teenager and her friends, all of which use the word “bro” asexually. Couldn’t they come up with a new word rather than subverting the old?

        I have an author I otherwise like whose protagonist curses every other page. You don’t get any actual curses, just the knowledge the character cursed. It is also off-putting because of the repetition.

        All of which means that we really need you as editor-of-the-world to get everyone back on track.

    2. While some say redemption is the strongest character arc you can have, I’ve read manuscripts where the protagonist is so bad when I meet them, I don’t want to hang around for the redemption. So that’s a danger. Also, there are characters who are nonredeemable. Off the top of my head is that movie with Viggo where he’s the short order cook and married and forget to tell his now wife that he was an enforcer in the mob before they met. Sorry– you can’t walk that one back.

  2. I think it’s a problem with any adjective, verb or so on being overused. There’s one author I enjoy, but she uses the word “crooned” far too often, and I flinch every time it shows up in her work now. There’s another writer whose characters seem to mutter everything.

    I agree with Jenny about the specificity of “smirked”. I disagree that heroes should never smirk. I have an annoying, reckless hero who absolutely is the kind of guy who would throw himself off a cliff to attack a dragon in mid-air, and while he may not (always) start fights, he’s quite happy to fan the flames in the right circumstances with the right pompous opponent. And when that opponent gets taken down a peg, my hero has been known to smirk in slightly smug satisfaction. In those moment, “smirk” was absolutely the right word for what he was doing – nothing else gives the same nuance. He doesn’t smile, except for about three carefully chosen moments, but he does grin, and I’ve had to prune out a few of those descriptors so that the grinning doesn’t (hopefully) get too overpowering. It’s a hard line to walk, though.

    1. You’re right, “smug satisfaction” is a good reason to use smirk. And I’ve used it that way in books for characters who needed slapped.

      I’m trying to think if I’ve ever liked a smug hero. (That’s personal preference, not saying it’s a rule or that everybody should agree.). I’ve like arrogant heroes, but not ones that were smug about it. The heroes in The Talisman Ring and Lord Perfect were arrogant and then wised up; I’m good with that because neither of them were ever smug. “Smug” isn’t ego, it’s a sense of superiority, the idea that the character is better than everyone else, and I think the problem I have with that (I am putting a lot of time today into understanding why I hate smirking smug characters) is that it’s stupid. People who assume they’re better than others make huge mistakes, they don’t see other people clearly, they base their decisions on their triumphant assumption of superiority and not on the facts. Obviously everybody makes mistakes, but smug smirkers let their egos blind them. There’s a difference between thinking you’re pretty damn good at something and thinking you’re better than other people. I can understand the first one, but the second one is just a failure of logic and intelligence.

      ETA: You said your hero took down people who are pompous, but if he’s smirking while he does it, he’s being pompous, too. Smirking is a manifestation of smugness and pomposity, both of which are obnoxious manifestations of character blindness and ignorance. Your description, though, reminds me of Rupert Carrington in Mr. Impossible, a character who blows through life smacking down people who get in his way and enjoying every minute. He never smirks (as I remember) because he never thinks he’s superior. His strength comes in not caring what people think which I think means a smirk isn’t possible for him because he doesn’t show off.

      But then keep in mind that I really hate smirkers in fiction and in real life, so I’m probably overreacting. Did anybody keep count of how many times Trump smirked? At all of his rallies certainly. Probably every time he tweeted, especially the ones with insults.

      Now I’m thinking about the difference between smirk and sneer. A smirk laughs down at people because the smirker is a dumbass; a sneer is meant to be cruel and disabling, used as a weapon; but both are manifestations of false superiority.

    2. Right or wrong, I’m not going to like your hero if he smirks.

      In the situation described, I don’t mind a hero that feels satisfaction but smirking just makes him the opponent of the enemy, not a protagonist in my mind.

      Possibly most people wouldn’t mind. I don’t know. But I thought I’d let you know that there is at least one reader that does. It is just an ugly emotion in my mind.

  3. “I don’t trust writers who use words they don’t know.”

    This. I hadn’t realised, but I think that’s why I don’t like smirk either. Misuse of language from a writer makes me distrust the writer and the publisher. Random people getting it wrong? Fine. People who are expert word users? Sigh.

    But I also wonder if culture plays a part here. Smirk isn’t cool with me, but I also hate the ‘of’ in e.g. ‘big of a deal’ and I think that might be a thing that has different acceptability/correctness in different versions of English.
    Another one is nonplussed – a word which is its own international opposite (a fact it took me a while to learn, I just thought it was being used incorrectly).

    1. ‘Big of’ is American, like ‘outside of’ – which is unfortunately going to become English. I just removed it from a book I was editing, and felt happy.

      My guess is these come from other languages’ influence on American English. They also say things like ‘meet with’ and ‘visit with’; and contrariwise they ‘write someone’ instead of writing to them. These kind of things, when it’s supposed to be a Regency heroine’s head we’re in, throw me. But I think they’re really hard for people who use them to notice; they’re so basic to everyday language.

      1. I thought “big of” was just bad grammar. I will confess to an Ohioism that drives people nuts: “That lawn needs mowed” instead of “needs to be mowed.” I try to not use it but it’s permanently in my brain.

        “Visit with” always sounds colloquial to me, as though it should be followed by “bless her heart.” “Meet with” I can almost see since “meet” alone feels like a description of encountering somebody for the first time. But you’re right, it’s redundant.

        1. That’s an NZism too. The lawn needs mowed, the garden needs weeded, the dishes need washed …. There’s a lot of work needs done round here and I don’t want to do any of it.

        2. At least in German, I feel there’s a difference between ‘meeting’ someone by chance and ‘meeting with’ someone on purpose, making an appointment. Would President Biden meet his aides or meet with his aides to discuss a problem?

          What puzzles me recently is the use of ‘gift’ as a verb. Is there a difference between being given a present and being gifted a present? For me, being gifted would rather express having a special talent.

          1. I think I’ve used it once, when Andie was dealing with her mother. Something about she could gift her with boundaries.

  4. Okay I won’t get into smirk again ;-), but I will say I really like the website wordclouds https://www.wordclouds.com/ for finding overused words in my text. You paste in text and the more often you repeat a word in the text, the bigger it is in your word cloud. I only do it a chapter at a time, but in theory you could do it for a whole draft. A chapter is just more manageable.

    It might not find “roll your eyes” if it’s something “rolling her eyes” then “rolled his eyes” etc, but it will find “eyes” and then I do a find and replace (or delete!) for some of those phrases. I check for shrugs and nods too. I usually let each character shrug or nod once per chapter.

    My “check for my personal overused words” is usually the last thing I do before spell-check and some of my overused words and phrases are – just, really, a little bit, sort of, well (in dialogue). I also usually go over every “and” b/c I tend to write a lot of long sentences and I want to make sure sentences don’t all have the same flow. I also check for ly adverbs. I don’t root out all of them, (I’m not Hemingway, for crying out loud) but I take out many or look to see if I can make it stronger without an adverb.

    1. Feel free to get into smirk again (g). Also you can put anything you want in your book, feel free to ignore me if smirking is your thing.

      1. To me, the larger point is that usage trumps dictionary definition/correct usage (I can imagine several people screaming right now). It’s something I think about as an ESL teacher. I can teach my students to say “This is she/This is he” and “I am well” as something appropriate for a formal situation, but it won’t help them in most informal situations with native speakers of American English.

        You’ve said that this use of smirk isn’t something you haven’t seen once or twice, but many times, so that tells us something. If smirk is being used very consistently in writing to mean something like “a cheeky grin” and not the dictionary definition of “a smug or condescending smile,” than its meaning is changing. Awful used to mean “worthy of awe.” Egregious used to mean “outstanding, of great quality.” Word meanings drift with time and I bet that it is happening faster now with the internet.

        It doesn’t mean anyone has to use the word smirk for their heroic characters. It doesn’t mean anyone should force themselves to read a book that uses the word smirk in a manner that is grating. (If anyone’s eyes are described as ‘orbs’ in a book it is an automatic do-not-finish for me) It just means language is a living thing, especially English.

        Okay, I will take off my word nerd hat now. 🙂

        1. In 50 years, apostrophe-s will indicate plural and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

          * Ducks out while everyone screams *

        2. I don’t think the meaning is changing because the dictionaries haven’t caught it yet. I think it probably will with the constant misuse, much like alot and alright, both of which make me scream.

          I think it just depends on how precise the writer is about language. Sloppy use of language throws me out of a book but probably doesn’t bother a lot of others. Still, you can’t pick your readers, which is why being precise is so important. There are a million things that can throw a reader out of a book, I don’t need to throw sloppy language in, too.

          1. But some changes that come through colloquialisms, or spoken language Channing written language are so awful, it’s worth the fight.

            Case: would of.

  5. Just going to weigh in here with my own standing thoughts.
    Stood is ongoing, while stood up is a specific action.

    They stood at the Cenotaph for hours.

    She stood up when the Queen entered the room. (As one does.)

    And of course, Wally stood me up at the wedding. There was I, waiting at the church… A whole nother story.

    1. She stood when the Queen entered is just more elegant.

      Stood up at the church: yeah, you need the “up.”

        1. Yes, but if the character is standing to sing, for example, you don’t need “up:”
          Jane stood to sing.

          If, on the other hand, the person the character was there to meet doesn’t show, then you absolutely need “up:”
          Jane was stood up at the church by Richard, surprising no one.

          Except that’s really awkward.

          Jane stood at the back of the church, waiting for Richard, who was getting drunk in Cancun on the money he’d scored selling her half of their honeymoon tickets.

  6. For laughs, I will always think of Firefly “Mine is an evil laugh.”

    I dislike it when something that’s relevant to one context is applied to many, by people completely unaware of the context, for lulz.

    Case in point: the huge number of people hating on the word, “moist” as a trend a few years back.
    So much so, someone just tweeted a published recipe that described a “damp” cake.

    I don’t know how or where the moist hating started but here are the consequences. 😝

    1. My fave use of moist is in Going Postal where it’s the hero’s first name. “Hi, I’m Moist,” cracks me up every time.

      And I agree with you. Moist is a good word. Or at least descriptive depending on what you’re talking about. Difference between a moist cake and a moist handshake, although both are good descriptions.

      Damp cake, not so much.

  7. Interesting. I think my take on facial expressions re show vs. tell may be slightly different because when I write I see facial expression more as show than tell.

    For me, facial expressions fall into the body language category and often reveal a character’s feelings, attitudes, behaviours, etc. I think of them a bit like reaction shots in a film. And sometimes, they’re most powerful when they’re in contrast to what a character says so there may even be a conflict of sorts in there between the telling and the showing that reveals another layer.

    Plus, I think as human beings, we make sense of ourselves and the world around us by constantly observing each other and attuning ourselves to others. And much of that tuning comes by way of facial expression. Like that psychology experiment that looked at how infants/toddlers responded to their mothers facial expressions and had their own emotional responses in turn and how that drastically altered their moods. Or how there’s often talk about the lack of connectivity when folks rely mostly on text communication these days as opposed to face-to-face communication.

    So while I agree repetitive use of facial expressions can be distracting in a book, I think a healthy amount can help show not only feelings (like a smile) but also reveal character or play a role in reflecting the world around the MC etc.

    That said, though, I’m with you on the smirk thing. It’s fine when used properly, but given its connotation, not sure I’d use it much in my books:)

  8. The divine Lois McMaster Bujold uses smirk in her Penric stories but it doesn’t bother me because she uses it correctly – the demon smirks when proved right, for example.

    I hate “munched” when someone is eating something soft like a sandwich. I’ll give you munching chips, but still not really attractive if you go by the definition: “to chew with a grinding, crunching sound” or “to eat vigorously or with excitement”

    I haven’t done Good Book Thursday yet, but I was going to complain about a middle aged woman who bounced into a room.. She had not won the lottery or found out she was going to be a grandmother, so no excuse for bouncing. 5 year olds can bounce into rooms all they want. Not to be ageist, but that’s my reaction.

    1. I read a book that had the line: “She mused, as she thoughtfully munched an apple”. That was the last book of that author that I have read. Sheesh.

      1. Yep. That’s an author who’s (a) trying too hard, (b) not rewriting enough to catch that, (c) sloppy with her execution. People pay a lot of money for my books; the LEAST I can do is be precise in my language.

        1. I figure she over-used her Thesaurus (so a)… and lucked into a series that people bought. Even after many books, she is still a elementary school aged writer. She hasn’t grown…

          Also, I really love HWSW …. it’s helped me become a better reader. I can articulate what annoys me about a book and why. 🙂 And what I love about certain books, and why. 🙂

  9. Jenny said, “Write the damn book. Finish it, she said hypocritically. Find an agent and let her market it.”

    I wish finding an agent was that easy. Or maybe I just need to write better books.

    “Yeah– everyone has to find their own path.”

    That would be a lot easier if I wasn’t stumbling around in the dark forest tripping over roots while the trees smirk at me.

    Don’t mind me. I’m in a foul mood. Why should I mind losing a job I didn’t particularly like? I’ll get over it, I always do, but meanwhile, I’m not very nice. I’m feeling sorry for myself and my lack of an agent and unlimited funds! My mother said I was born into the wrong class in the wrong century.

    1. You’re totally feeling a loss and that’s what it is. Doesn’t feel good, so that’s just that!

      As for the unlimited funds, a best friend of mine calls it, “Champagne tastes, but a beer budget.”

  10. “I don’t trust writers who use words they don’t know.” So much this.

    The first-of-three-ballroom-romance book I bailed out of last night had, in a single scene describing different rooms in a large dance studio, multiple instances of ‘replete.’ Again, describing rooms, not people at the end of a Lucullan feast. Rooms replete with chandeliers. Replete with mirrors. Replete with benches for waiting students.

    Even if you take the first internet definition – ‘filled or well-supplied with something’ – is a room really filled with chandeliers? filled with mirrors? filled with benches? No. Not if people are going to be dancing there. And I’ve been in a lot of dance studios; can testify they are not filled with chandeliers. There might be *one,* usually in the entry.

  11. I think I smirk alot. I smugly smile when I fix something easily. I have a silly smile when it breaks again. Between the smirks I swear.

    1. I think smirk is transitive. That is, you have to feel superior to someone/something else to smirk, you need an object. But I could be wrong.

  12. In your intro to this post, Jenny, you said “In my world, good people do not smirk, it’s an asshole kind of expression, condescending, arrogant, superior, and jerkface” and that’s the thing I think deserves some discussion.

    I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the comments people have made, specifically because I think the difficulty with both “smirk” and “eye-rolling” comes with using words on a page to convey things about a person or a subject that in real life is expressed through facial expressions or gestures.

    Like you, I’m not fond of the word “smirk” but I don’t have the reaction of throwing the book down without reading any more. I was an English major in college, but other things besides language are generally my book rejection triggers; take giant silken ball gowns with bare shoulders and long curly hair on a Regency heroine, for example… 🙂

    The two points I take issue with are first, authors that I venerate (Lois McMaster Bujold chief among them) use the term “smirk” for both good people and bad — it often seems to be a depiction of expression only, rather than intent or character, and it gives me information about what’s going on between two characters without signifying the speaker’s goodness or jerkiness.

    The second is that I feel dictionary definitions shouldn’t be used as inflexible yardsticks, because language does evolve, and always has done and will do. I don’t mind when Dickens’ orphans misuse the Queen’s English, or Bob misuses “it’s” in his dialogue above ( 😉 ) so with “smirk”, in a book by someone I like, I keep reading to see what their point is.

    That’s my rant, and I am Jinx the Seventh

    1. I love that you have embraced being Jinx the 7th. It has a nice ring to it 🙂

      Good name for a ruler of a fantasy country. Maybe a place where luck is inherited or gifted?

    2. Misusing “it’s/its” is sometimes just a typo (that should be fixed). Dickens’ orphans misusing language is dialect; grammar has no business in the spoken word. Language does evolve, but some of the evolutions are bad communication, and that what using “smirk” to mean “grin” is. If somebody used “sneer” to mean “friendly smile,” you’d have deep suspicions about the writer’s command of language. That’s what “smirk” as “grin” does for me.

      I should reiterate, smirk’s a perfectly good word for a conceited jerk, you just have to know that it’s a slappable offense.

    3. I’m with you Jinx the 7th ;-), but what it comes down to is some people are prescriptivists and some are descriptivists and while there’s room for nuance, I’m not sure one side can do much to convince the other side completely.

      If someone wrote “Betty June Beauregard smirked her daddy’s vintage convertible into a telephone pole and now she’s in the hospital in a coma,” I would absolutely agree that they have used the word in incorrectly and they are being imprecise in their language.

      But “it isn’t in the dictionary” doesn’t hold water for me as the definitive argument for how a word should be used. Not for something that is being created for entertainment. If many people are using a word “incorrectly” in the same way, well there’s a reason dictionaries update frequently.

      William Shakespeare and James Joyce invented words and we love them for it b/c they’re old dead white guys. Dictionaries aren’t oracles or gods. They are documents of a very specific time and place made by fallible human beings.

      There is no “royal academy” or official body of the English language (who would run it? we can’t even agree on spelling!). Nonnative speakers of English outnumber native speakers by a lot (almost 2 to 1), which means future English will probably be even more stripped down and strange to our ears. English is the wild child of the language world and probably always will be. It is what makes it maddening, but also flexible and useful.

      “Groovy” meant something very different to my grandmother than it does to my mother, but the first listed use of “groovy” as “marvelous, wonderful, excellent” is in 1937 (according to Merriam-Webster). Was that person wrong or just being creative with language? Meanwhile, I haven’t heard anyone use “groovy” in a non-sarcastic way my whole life (and I’m 40) so I imagine it will soon come to have a completely opposite meaning.

      I’m somewhat sympathetic to more prescriptive among us, but I think taming the English language is a bit like nailing Jello to a tree. Or jelly, as some countries would have it 😉

      So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

      1. Hi, Jill!

        “If someone wrote ‘Betty June Beauregard smirked her daddy’s vintage convertible into a telephone pole and now she’s in the hospital in a coma’,” is “bad Engrish” unless Betty June was too busy smirking at a passenger to notice she was leaving the road. She got what she deserved.

        There is no “royal academy” or official body of the English language (who would run it? we can’t even agree on spelling!) Oh, please! We would contract out the upkeep and maintenance to someone in India or Pakistan. British colonies where English was spoken.

        “Groovy.” I am now channeling Simon and Garfunkle
        I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep
        I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
        Let the morningtime drop all its petals on me
        Life, I love you, all is groovy
        The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)1969

      2. In German, we have a word ‘geil’ which formerly meant ‘randy’ or ‘horny’ but by now is mainly used to describe something great or cool. This way, you could find a big appliance store chain advertising that ‘Geiz ist geil’ – “stinginess is cool’. (We are still debating that, though.) I guess that’s how language changes throughout the ages.

        By the way, when I went to High School in the mid-Seventies during my exchange year, my friends would say ‘It’s groovy – I can dig it!’ with a very sarcastic undertone!

        1. The same thing happened here with “sick,” which morphed into “cool.”
          The thing about those kind of changes, though, is that they’re not mistakes, they’re deliberate defiant violation of language, an act of rebellion, using great contrast as power. “Smirk” is just sloppy writing, not a political act.

        2. I have a character in Lawyers, Guns and Money who introduces herself as “Truvey, rhymes with groovy”. I got Truvey because where I used to get my hair cut before the zombies, when they leaned my back in the chair, there was a saying from Steel Magnolias on the ceiling. Apparently there was a character names Truvey.

  13. This whole discussion has prompted a search for ‘laughed’ in the book I want to advertise next month. There are too many laughs. Revision happens.

    1. Oh, mine is “looked.” She looked at him, he looked at her, they looked at the floor, it’s a perfectly good construct just not every other sentence. I’m hooked on “looked.” And “just.” It’s terrible.

  14. I really like this. Smirk for me definitely means bad guy – major bad attitude, no coming back from it. This discussion really reminds me that people have hot spot words like smirk that make them irrationally angry at a character. The smirky guy is irredeemable. Can I ask your feelings on using the word land to describe a person sitting down in a chair? A NYT Best-selling author uses the word very often as in X person landed in a chair. Which makes me unconscionably angry every time I see it and I literally say out loud NO Rockets land, helicopters land, people sit. Or if they are really angry they throw themselves into a chair, but they do not land. They can be pushed all the way to the ground and then I accept as in X was shot and landed on the pavement, but they have to actually hit the ground. No idea why this engenders such a strong reaction for me but it does. I beta read for this author and began pointing it out and realized after the third or fourth reference like this that it was a deliberate choice so I went back and just noted on the first one that I tripped up on that word choice. I wonder how much this happens. I read a series whose author is Australian and notates in the beginning that she has kept Australian English and she provides a helpful glossary for us American English speakers. I can laugh at myself that those odd things jumper, boot, tap etc mean different things and I am ok with those, but land pulls me right out of the story!

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