When having sex, a “safe word” is used by one partner to indicate that a kinky act has transcended what is fun and pleasurable and veered into the realm of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. So, in addition to “no” meaning “no,” “avocado” means “put out the candles, turn off the cattle prod, and let’s focus for now on inserting traditional appendages into traditional orifices.”
Fiction writers have their own sets of safe words, although they exist in a slightly different context, because a literal parallel would be unnerving. The written page looks up at its author and says, “suddenly!” Suddenly, and the author knows to put the brakes on the prose and bust out the repair kit.
“Suddenly, Gerard Petersmith stepped into the room. The assembled bohemians regarded him with sudden alarm, their expressions suddenly shifting from complacency to the aforementioned alarm in the most redundant fashion. ‘It all happened very suddenly,’ witnesses would later explain to the police who had arrived quite suddenly, as though they had not been there five minutes earlier. It is amazing how suddenly lives can change, things can happen, and people can change their minds or move their hands. She looked at him with eyes so damp a toddler must have drooled into them and said, ‘I don’t know. It all seems so . . . expected?’ Gerard nodded, glad for his own complete and utter lack of spontaneity.”
Every writer gravitates toward a handful or two of safe words, go-to, comfortable language that flows faster than conscious thought from the brain to the keyboard. Although “suddenly” is an offender endemic to novice and veteran writers alike, every author has a unique cozy sweater knitted together from their off-the-cuff vocabulary. My own characters were once prone to “turn their attention” to and “regard” far too much in spans of “five minutes” while “nodding.” Staring back at me, the page cries out a litany of safe words, signaling that this pleasurable act of unfettered writing must now be tempered into the dutiful missionary position of editing and revision.
The tragedy is reading a published work peppered with unheeded safe words, glaringly redundant and hackneyed, and realizing that nobody ever loved the book enough to notice its many cries for help. Love your work, and you can share a cigarette afterwards.
[I originally posted a less sensual version of this article on the Bedford Writer’s Group blog.]