Monday, November 4, 2013

A Few Choice Words

What’s the difference between ordinary writing and extraordinary literature?

Word choice.

     That is not some editorial decree to run out and buy a new thesaurus (although if you don’t own J. I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder, you should go get it), there is a lot more to word choice than a simple book-learned substitution of terms.
     As a self-directed exercise, I suggest you take any sentence out of your most recent work (eventually, take them all out, but start with just one) and challenge yourself to find three uniquely different ways of expressing that same thought.  While ruminating over your language skills, run across your cerebral hall and wake up that flaky poet who resides in the left hemisphere of your brain.  Ask your reclusive internal bard if he/she could suggest a better, more artistic way of presenting your idea.      
      Look for neoteric words, innovative sentence structures and scene appropriate idiom that will convey your ideas more proficiently and with more originality. Consider using of symbolism, analogy, metaphor, simile or juxtaposed scenarios to show your reader the story, not just tell it.
     Great writing requires great effort.  It takes practice to find new, different and novel (pun intended) ways to express your thoughts, and it does require study.  Read the classics, read the acclaimed, read the published, then go back and read them again.  Study the way the masters take a simple idea and apply the alchemy of word choice to turn the heavy LEAD of writing into the precious GOLD of literature.     A favorite line of mine is from Nabokov’s Lolita, as Vladimir described an ill kept lawn, he wrote, “Most of the dandelions had changed from suns into moons.”

     Can you see that lawn?  Is that not a great way to describe weeds?  Keep in mind that this was written by a man who grew up speaking Russian, went to school in France (speaking French) and came to the U.S. with English as his THIRD language.
     Next scan your writing for passé / dated language, clichés and unintentional informality.  I just break this rule every time I write.  Seems like just about every sentence I write with more than five words, just ends up with just in it.  It just bothers the hell out of me.  Really, I just hate that word just, but I say it all of the time so it just sneaks into my writing.
      Be continuously vigilant for equally mundane words or phrases that threaten to infiltrate your writing from the borders of your unregulated conversational language.  When you re-read, don’t read in your own voice; read with the new eyes of your potential audience.  Read your stories out loud, and slowly.  If you have succumbed to the habit of poor language and dismal sentence structure, the offending words will stick to your tongue like the purple dye of cheap grape candy.  
Another offense that every writer commits at times is the use of overused descriptions and clichés.  As an editor, nothing bothers me more than reading something from an author who I know has talent, and running across terms like "chiseled features" of their handsome hero, or his damsel who is "a diamond in the rough" and the inevitability their "falling head over heels" in love.  I would much rather read about a man whose symmetry and lines would make a Michelangelo sculpture envious, who is attracted to a commonly woman whose unadorned aesthetics belie the rich beauty of her soul, and their fated mating of hearts, where two bodies become the symbiotic unity of one love.
     Moving on, the next thing you need to parse and analyze, is your story’s dialogue.  Go hide in your bedroom or out in the shed, and act out your story!  Are your characters speaking like the people you wrote them to be, or are the people in your story talking just like you.  Excuse me for a moment while I strap on this safety helmet; you’ll understand in a second (have you seen my partner, Adrianna?).
      Not long ago I was helping a 
friend with a story.  In a scene were several seasoned, rough and ready, deadly combat marines were facing an as-yet unknown enemy.  One of the subordinate soldiers asked his CO if they should “blow the barn to smithereens.”  Duck!  Here Adrianna comes with her bat!
      I was cussed at for the next few days as my PITA researched military jargon and combat lingo to pen the right words for her platoon of doomed marines.  In the end the Mist lifted and her soldiers sounded like the lethal combatants she needed for the story to work.     
       Who are your characters?  Are they soldiers, doctors, nurses, teenagers, octogenarians, drug addicts, thieves, cops, Bible thumping preachers, unrepentant sinners, promiscuous bar flies, ex-cons or latent homosexual college professors?  Take the story’s action off the page, and look at the naked dialogue out of the context of your story's momentum.  Who is talking?  Are you using your words or are you writing the dialogue of someone with the heritage, education and socio-economic position of your character?  
     For the next exercise, you will need to replace your story’s action back on the page.  This time I want you to take a red pencil and divide your story into action segments.  Whether through summary narration, character actions, crisis building, resolution or denouement, your story is in constant motion.  (If not maybe you should consider starting over.)  With your story segmented, examine each of the portions and define the action using no more than two or three words.  Once you have a name for the action, take out your Synonym Finder (or thesaurus) and start listing as many words as possible that imply or complement that action.  If there is fire, build a list of words that relate to smoke, heat, flame, burnt, ash, charred, inferno, hell.  If there is a contest, look for words that imply victory (or defeat).  Use the same methodology for anger, romance, revenge, fear, betrayal, etc.  You should have a separate list for each change in the direction your story takes.  With these lists in hand, go word by word through your action segments substituting as many relational nouns, verbs and adjectives as is possible.  This is what is known in literature as coloring a story.  It guides your readers through the action with repetitious subliminal suggestions.
     Word colors will carry your audience along the currents of a story's energy, trap them in the eddies of character indecision and thrash them against the rocks in the rapids of crisis.

      When you've finished putting your colors in, go back through the words that you didn't change and be SURE that there are no words that contrast with the color of the action.  You would not want rosy, prize, win, award, ribbon, trophy, optimistic or leader if your character is in a downward spiral or in the process of failing at his/her efforts.

     Coloring your scenes will draw your readers into the mood of the story; dialogue will build the realism of your characters; idiom that matches the time, place and culture of your story creates credibility, and innovative expression will demonstrate your mastery of the craft.
      Writing takes effort; great writing takes great effort.  Nabokov, Faulkner, Chekov, Hemingway, Joyce, Kafka and Melville were not made in a single day.  They practiced and failed; learned and grew; and eventually found their unique path to the immortality we all strive for.  Your path is waiting.
      Did you REALLY think you were done?  C’mon, no one said this was going to be easy.  Get that story back out!   Read through it one more time and find everyplace you used the same word twice (or God forbid three times).  Recheck those sentences carefully, are there other word substitutions that might work?  Could you restructure the presentation of the story without using and re-using the same words.  Even your grandma’s 1950s vintage edition of Roget’s Thesaurus might suggest a few words to improve your writing.
       Okay, the lesson is over.  Now it is up to you to study, practice and improve.  The next time you need a woman to scream in fear while a violent storm rages and a door creaks open letting in some evil entity; I want to experience the high octave modulation of incomprehensible terror, the trees of the shadowy copse weeping their unheeded warning amidst the howl of dark winds, and the rusty pivots of hinges braking hard against unlubricated pins with an eerily down-pitched whistle that announces the ominous entry of the demonic poltergeist.
     Word choice is the incantation behind the Magic of Writing.  If you study the ancient texts, learn the lessons of sorcerers with more experience, practice your spell casting, and have confidence in your mystic powers, you too can create extraordinary literature from ordinary writing.

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