Monday, November 4, 2013

Grammar ABCs: X Marks the Spot, a Placeholder

"Work, the what's-its-name of the thingummy and the thing-um-a-bob of the what d'you-call-it."—P.G. Wodehouse, Psmith, Journalist

A placeholder is what a writer puts in when she can’t think of the right line or idea at the moment. Placeholders can be a useful tool when you are making that mad dash through your first draft, especially during November’s NaNoWriMo challenge. How often do you get bogged down when you stop to try to think of just the right word or phrase? How many times do you make a detour to the Internet to search for that word or phrase and get further derailed by blogs, articles or that “ding” that signals you have a Facebook message? Well, turn off everything but your word processing program and remember “placeholders.”

You can use a placeholder when you can’t remember what you named the heroine’s fifth child ten  chapters ago. “When he saw the huge shadow looming, Little Whosit dropped his books on the ground and ran.” You don’t need to take the time to search back to find the name right now.

You can use a placeholder when you don’t know the name of something. “Bob peered at the wires in the thingamajig, sweat rolling down his back. If he couldn’t disarm this thing…” You certainly don’t want to stop in the middle of a high-tension scene to figure out what the “thingy” is he’s working on.

You can use a tagline (he said) as a placeholder in dialogue. “No, I understand why you want to break up with me,” he said. My fiction teachers (and consequently I) recommend not using taglines when it’s possible to use an action or a reaction instead. But if you’re writing dialogue and you know you’ve used too many “his stomach clenched” actions, you can go ahead and put in a placeholder.

"I have unspiked the sliding doors at the far end of the barn, so that the greatly increased flow of visitors can move past the whatchamacallit without eddies and backwash. In one end they go, and out the other."—Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard.

Do you use placeholders? What are some of the gems you’ve come up with?


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

19 comments :

  1. I use this technique liberally in my "bare bones" drafts.I try to get the scenes down without worrying about details. If the major focus of the scene needs to be cut, then I haven't wasted a lot of time finding the perfect words. I use (insert response here), (insert tag here), (insert description here) (insert name of place here) or (how did that work?). After my initial frame is in place and solid, I take time crafting the fun parts like character and setting descriptions, first and last lines, etc. It helps me avoid repetitive actions, emotional responses, and descriptions.

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  2. Yes ... unfortunately, my current WIP has 5 pages of content and 320 pages of placeholders.

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    1. LOL Christopher! But at least you have the 325 pages!

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    2. Christopher that one had me laughing out loud! Hahaha!!

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  3. I use placeholders, but don't have any set ones. I just put an appropriate word or phrase in brackets so I'll recognise it when I start editing. They're a great way to prevent the prevarication that can so easily result from starting an online (or even a printed book) search for le mot juste.

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  4. This is a great post, Heidi. Nothing derails sudden inspiration or writing on a roll more effectively than a side trip to the Internet to seek that elusive word, only to find yourself headed down a garden path toward a topic that has absolutely nothing to do with your story — or your inspiration. Placeholders, here I come!

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  5. Yes, I use placeholders. Bless those xxx's.

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    1. Yes, I use xxx's too and highlight in yellow.

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  6. Great post this early into NaNoWriMo, Heidi. Thanks!

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  7. I do placeholders a lot, often just a question mark that I then highlight so I can make sure I notice it when I am doing another draft of that scene or that chapter.

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  8. This is what I need to do. I can spend hours sometimes looking for just the right word or doing other research to make sure I've described something accurately - yesterday I was watching Youtube videos on how to nock an arrow. Placeholders will drive my inner editor mad, but maybe that's a good thing.

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  9. I use [XXX] - easy to search for, and it's not productive for me to spend time searching for the right adjective -- or worse -- a metaphor or simile. Plenty of time to strengthen the manuscript on the next read-through. I use my [XXX] a LOT when I introduce a new character and can't come up with a good name for him/her.

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    1. This is exactly what I do -- easy to search for, and very little chance they'll slip by me visually in future drafts. Love it!

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  10. Sounds like a good idea. Think I'll start using XXX when I'm at a loss for words!

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  11. I just make up a word that spellcheck won't understand. For instance one of my early words was squertyfrompsledoolia, bit long but as I had just begun to write it didn't matter, proof reading would catch this when time was more available.
    Now I just rattle of a few random characters, wrffr.

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  12. Very good advice. I tend to insert a word that fits, but is not the one I'm trying to think of. I like the idea of inserting XXX instead. Easy to search and replace and I can keep writing and come back later.

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  13. This will reveal my inner school geek but I use fill in the ______ . I always loved test-taking and this replicates the experience and makes me smile. I figure it's quicker than setting up a multiple choice answer. ;)

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  14. The title of this article made me laugh. I'm guilty of littering my manuscripts with X's. I know if I can't find the word right away no amount of struggle will make it come. I just wait until the next morning and all of a sudden the words magically appears in my mind when I reread the section.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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