Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How to Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say - Word Choice for the Fussy Writer

Today, I'm posting the second workshop I taught at a recent writer's conference. This one on the writer's favorite friend - words. Here, we revisit our old buddies and learn to sharpen our writing without dulling our sensibilities. Enjoy!

In our first fiction workshop we talked about concepts involved in crafting a novel – deep POV and subtext – related to showing vs. telling.

In this works

hop we’ll be looking at the building blocks of all fiction – words.

Writing is a competitive industry. It’s difficult to break into, and difficult to stay in after you’ve been published.

One of the best ways to grab the attention of an agent or editor is to be interesting. That may seem obvious, but you might be surprised how many hopeful novelists forget this rule. Today, I’m going to take you beyond grammatical sentences, beyond correct phrasing, beyond simple words, into the realm of “attention grabbing interesting” through the use of word choice.

I said this morning that all writing concepts are really large ideas crammed full of the concepts that comprise them – we talked about bubbles inside of bubbles. This holds true with word choice. Two bubbles that are, if not one inside the other, are at least stuck together and over lapping are word choice and voice.

I’m not doing a workshop on voice today – but it’s important to understand word choice in fiction as being germane to your voice as a fiction writer and to your characters. The words you choose to tell you story need to be words that fit with the voice of the characters, the era, the setting, and above all, with your voice.

But let’s not get all in a ball about that today. I throw it out there as a kind of beacon – as you grow as a writer, find your voice and practice fearless word choice, you’ll develop into the kind of writer editors and agents say yes to.

Two pieces of advice about words: Continually add to your vocabulary. Bring words into your stable often. Not just words you know the definitions of and can pronounce correctly if need be, but words that expand your everyday language. Words you reach for when writing need to be words you reach for when speaking. Improving your vocabulary will improve your writing.

Trust your muse. An industry has been built around teaching people how to write. This has been helpful to many, but more often it has been confusing. The new writer is left quivering in the corner uncertain which error he has committee (but he is certain he has committed an error) that means certain death of his beloved story. We’re a bit tied up in knots when it comes to the rules of writing. In learning the rules we’ve become bound by them. My strong advice is to learn the rules so that you and your muse can successfully bend them, and, at times, even break them. There is a huge difference between a writer unintentionally breaking a rule and doing so with purpose. And the reader always knows the difference.

If that advice makes your insides do the happy dance, may I suggest a writing book that will really get your belly in a polka. Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s guide to punchier, more engaging language & style by Arthur Plotnik. It's a wonderful book that will help you get your writer's funk on.

There are nearly endless choices of focus for a workshop on word choice, but I’m focusing on my top three:

Verbs and adverbs

Word crutches

My second favorite Trope

The goal of this workshop is to free your mind, and hopefully your creative muse, enough to take some writerly risks when it comes to word choice. I’m hoping to take the lid off the jar – allowing us to have some creative fun.

Verbs and adverbs – We’ve heard all sorts of rules about verbs and adverbs in our writing journey. What are some of them?

Passive verbs

Adverbs are evil

Two iron clad rules; Verbs – make them strong. Adverbs –don’t use them.

The reasoning is sound – strong verbs convey greater meaning and do not require help from a descriptive adverb, and adverbs do little shore up weak verbs. They aren’t as helpful as we might like them to be.

First things first – let’s talk verbs. Two major issues with verbs are “passive verbs” and “weak verbs”. We’ll start with passive verbs.

Passive verbs: What are passive verbs? What are passive verbs? How can we identify them?

A trick to finding passive verbs in your work:

1. Take a highlighter to your work and underscore each use of the verb “to be”: am, are, is, was, were, will be, has been, have been, had been, etc.

2. When you find a “to be” verb in a sentence – look for the subject of the sentence. Often, weak verbs happen because the subject of the sentence is misplaced within the sentence, or is missing from the sentence. The subject of the sentence is the thing that performs the action. It is the person responsible for the verb.

An example of a sentence containing a misplaced subject: The child was bitten by the dog.

The passive verb “was bitten” is our red flag. Then we look for the subject of the sentence, which is, of course, the dog. The dog is the subject because the dog did the biting – not the child. The subject must appear before the verb. Placing the object in front of the verb renders weak verbs.

This seems simple, but it can get tricky fast. Let’s look at the sentence I just gave you, that I hope you jotted down – if you didn’t, jot it down now. “Placing the object in front of the verb renders weak verbs.” Where is the object of this sentence? The object is the word “object” because is the thing the verb is acting on.

Where is the subject?

The subject is missing. The subject has been omitted from the sentence. The correct sentence would read something like, “If you (the subject) place (the verb) the object (the object) in front of the verb (the indirect object), you (subject) render (verb) weak verbs (object).

So a second thing to look for when you’ve discovered a weak verb in your manuscript, is an AWOL subject.

Sometimes, when I am crafting a compound sentence I will write the simple sentence first, and then add in the complexities I want. This keeps me on the active verb straight and narrow.

I don’t intent to cut the ends off your creativity by insisting you format every sentence you write following every rule of grammar all the time. What I am suggesting is you master this rule of strong verbs, so that while you are crafting creative sentences you don’t risk losing your reader with passive verbs. Most of us have heard the saying, said tongue in cheek, “Mistakes were made”. The verb is passive, the subject is missing – but it’s funny precisely because it is a vague non-admission of guilt. You can see parents coming home after an evening at the opera, only to find the main floor trashed by their teenage son and his friends. The boy turns to his shocked parents and says, “Mistakes were made.”

It breaks the rules – but it does it on purpose and it works.

For those of you hard core learners - check out this link that talks about a specific system regarding passive/vague verbs:

Okay, that was a glance at passive verbs. Now we’ll look briefly at weak verbs – don’t panic – remember, I’m posting this workshop on my blog later. You’ll be able to read through it at your leisure. For now, we are getting our hands dirty, working with these concepts, which will help you when you revisit the workshop later. Okay! Weak verbs.

We can weed passive verbs out of our manuscripts and still be left with weak verbs. What makes a verb “weak”? I’ve done a fair amount of reading about weak verbs – and while there are technical answers rooted in grammar, for the writer, the answer can be distilled to this: weak verbs are general in nature, strong verbs are specific in nature.

Some examples:

The nurse hurried down the hall.

“hurried” is vague. It doesn’t help us picture the nurse as she moves down the hall. It isn’t technically incorrect – it isn’t “wrong” to say she hurried, but there are sharper verbs we could use. Verbs more specific to the manner in which the nurse hurried down the hall.

If I said “The nurse smashed down the hall” – it paints a brighter picture, both of the action and of the nurse. I’m picturing a wide set woman in whites, elephanting her way toward the double doors at the end of the hall. It adds specificity of action and character.

If I say, “The nurse trotted down the hall” – it conveys a less harried situation, she’s moving more quickly than walking, but it drains the sentence of tense, urgent movement. The specificity of the verb tells the reader how to feel about the scene.

When I post this workshop on my blog – I’ll include exercises for you to try. For the sake of time, we need to press on to the next verb related category:

Adverbs are words that describe the verb, they are easy to spot because they most often sport an –ly ending.

We’re told to expunge our work of –ly words. This is solid advice. For those of you who took this mornings fiction workshop, use of adverbs often translates into a form of “telling” rather than showing. In general, the overuse of adverbs is frowned upon in the industry.

I emphatically suggest you review your work and omit almost all –ly words from your manuscript. Strong verbs – which we’ve just talked about – do not require a descriptive – in fact, paring an adverb and strong verb weakens the verb. Editors often refer to this as “padding a sentence”.

Let’s revisit our nurse sentence with a strong verb:

The nurse lumbered down the hall.

The verb lumbered is strong – it’s visual, packed with meaning.

If I added an adverb: The nurse lumbered heavily down the hall – how important is the contribution of the adverb to the meaning of lumbered?

It isn’t. Lumbered carries within it the meaning “heavy” – the reader doesn’t need it underlined.

When you omit adverbs from your manuscript, you’ll often need to replace your verb with a strong verb – a verb that is specific in it’s meaning.

Remember: Strong verb = strong meaning.

However! While gunning for adverbs can be a writer’s sport, the rule against using them can feel confining. Some of us may feel it dampens our muse. Here is a trick taken from Art Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite which helps us make peace with our –ly friends.

“Take a forceful adjective, add –ly to make it an adverb, combine it with the target word, and voila!

The example in the book is this: the strong adjective: withering. Add an –ly. Combine it with a target word, say cute – and you’ve created a “burst of wry wit, a mini-statement. Witheringly cute.

Practice by choosing one or two of these strong adjectives and pairing it/them with a target word of your choice:






My examples: “Lavishly exclusive” “Obnoxiously kind” “Scrawnily intelligent” “Woundingly beautiful” “Thunderingly scant”

Omitting adverbs is a good rule, but don’t sacrifice your muse on the alter of correctness. Learn how to bend the rules to create memorable writing that works. Loosen up and have some fun sometimes. Adverbs, used sparingly and with expertise can add oomph and interest to your work.

Leaving the world of verbs – let’s talk about another bugaboo that plagues the pages of every writer’s novel:

Word crutches: Writers have words and phrases they use repeatedly – these are referred to as word crutches. In her article, Targeting Enemy Words, Sandra Miller defines crutch words as:

words that you fall back on when you can't find a better one--or when you are hoping to dilute the force of what you are really saying. Crutch words are especially likely to come out when you write about a subject that you fear will upset your readers. Every writer has different crutch words they rely on.”

Some of my crutch words are “bit” as is, 'she felt a bit suicidal', and I have a few weak verbs that are word crutches for me: “took”- when I edit my day’s writing, it’s not unusual for me to find my characters tooking all over the place. They took steps toward things, then took more steps away, they took things away, took things to heart, took control, took a break – blah blah blah – too much tooking. “Went” is another crutch word I expunge regularly – “she went to the sink, stripped and went to the backyard.” Too much wenting to be interesting reading.

Everyone’s crutch words will be different. If you do the work of cleaning up your manuscript by cutting passive verbs, replacing weak verbs and executing 99% of adverbs – it will be much easier to spot your crutch words – you won’t be wading through thick jungles of wordiness.

To find your crutch words read your manuscript and highlight words that appear frequently, especially in the same paragraph. Make a list of words that you use often. This will serve as a reminder as you’re writing, not to fall back on old friends, but to reach for clarity of meaning by using the appropriate word for the circumstance.

Repeating words stand out to a reader. I’ve read novels I loved, but found word crutches that stood out. In one YA fantasy novel I read recently the word “thrummed” appeared too often for comfort. It’s a stand out word, not often used in modern speech, so it’s use stood out. In another book I read by a favorite author, I couldn’t help notice the word “black” used over and over. Granted, it may have stood out more to me because use of the word black is used less often in recent years and the book I was reading was dated, but the author used the word a few too many times – and it became a word crutch.

Also look for phrases or actions that repeat too often. If you are writing a tear-jerker, for example, you may find yourself with characters who are constantly tearing up, shedding tears, choking back tears, spilling tears, jabbing at tears with a tissue, wiping away tears – see how repetitive it becomes?

Writer’s need to reach around the words, phrases, and verbs that sit at the front of our imaginative shelf. We need to reach for fresh, interesting words and phrases that tell the story and make the reader sigh with joy.

Discovering your word crutches can be eye opening, but it must be done – and it must be done for each manuscript you write. Just because the words: dangerous, never, and alarmed were crutch words in your last novel about a fairy from the underworld on a murderous spree in modern Chicago, doesn’t mean they will be crutch words in your new novel about an expatriate Russian princess turned arms dealer in the Cold War era. They might be the same, but I guarantee you’ll find new ones with each story you tell.

Speaking of fresh and interesting phrases – we’ve arrived at our last category -

Tropes: A literary trope is a common pattern, theme, motif in literature, or a figure of speech in which words are used in a sense different from their literal meaning.

Two popular tropes writers use are simile and metaphor – we’re going to touch on simile today. Originally, I’d thought I would teach on both simile and metaphor, but the as I prepared for this workshop, I realized I couldn’t do the metaphor justice in this format. It’s a workshop in and of itself – so I’ve settled on talking about my second favorite trope, the simile.

But first:

What is the difference between a simile and a metaphor?

Similes make explicit comparisons – home feels like paradise

Metaphor implies the comparison. – The place God forgot

Writers tend to use these two types of trope most often. Pretty straight forward stuff, in some ways, but again, the trick here is to be fresh and apt.

Similes are fun – second favorite or not, I love them and use them often in my writing. While writing we can reach for all sorts of comparisons and illustrations that sound savvy, funny, iconic, or what have you – but the question needs to be asked: does this simile play nice with the other concepts, characterizations, and themes in the book? Or does it stand out like a prom queen in army boots?

Obviously, I’ve just used a simile. What makes this simile work? What makes it apt?

It exemplifies the counterintuitive – this isn’t something we’d expect to see –

But, It’s specific, we can picture it. We can see a lovely girl thumping around the dance floor in clunky boots.

The prom queen simile works also because it highlights the problematic ways trope use could stand out – awkward, even ugly. The simile is tactile, sensory, slightly wry.

I’ve read similes like, “His smile was like the wind over the sands of the Sahara.” The sentence continued, explaining the trope: “vast and impersonal”.

The simile falls flat – it doesn’t work.

Here’s a hint – if you need to explain your simile or metaphor, you need a new simile or metaphor. If your simile requires you to defend why you put the two ideas side by side, then to two ideas don’t belong side by side. Look for a better simile. Although, I could have almost forgiven this author if his explanation of the simile was because the man’s smile was “gritty”, or “eroded”. Almost. But not quite.

Three questions to ask yourself when crafting tropes is to ask yourself:

Does this bring clarity?

Does this fit with and respect the rest of the novel in some way?

Would the scene be better without out it?

This is the rub for every writer – to be original and interesting without crossing over to the dark side of tropes where a manuscripts becomes padded with pithy phrasing and zippy similes. Clever trope isn’t a substitute for great writing filled with motion, meaning, and story. But when it’s right, – such as this one, found in Martin Amis’ Yellow Dog, “Her head dropped by degrees, like the resilient jolts of a second-hand” – when it’s right like that is, then your work sings.

I bid you good writing.


L. Diane Wolfe said...

Bonnie, thanks! This is really cool. And since this week is the Muse Online Writer's Conf. as well, it's icing on the cake!

I'll mention this in my Firday roundup blog post.

violet said...

Thanks! I would have taken your workshops if I had attended the fall conference. So I appreciate this!

Shakespeare said...

What a great discussion! I teach this to my composition students in college, too. It seems the tendency is to add adverbs if they are trying to pump up prose, when often more can be said with far less. I give them dull sentences with passive verbs and missing subjects, and they get to replace the dull words with vivid ones.

So glad I found this blog site!

Steena Holmes said...

Exactly what I need right now! I'm busy editing with blue highlighter - now I think I need to add a new color for my 'crutches'.

Thanks Bonnie!

Steena Holmes said...

This was exactly what I needed to read! I'm in the middle of editing with my blue hightlighter. I think I need to find a new color for my crutches :)

Thanks Bonnie!