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1. PubCrawl Podcast: Writing Mechanics – Voice

This week JJ and Kelly discuss Voice in another installment of their Writing Mechanics series. Voice: What is it? How can you develop it? How many times can they say “voice” in a single episode?

Show Notes

What We’re Reading/Books Discussed

Off Menu Recommendations

What We’re Working On

  • Kelly will be teaching another class on contracts at the Loft Literary Center and working on her YA novel
  • JJ is juggling several different writing projects and is trying to figure out what to work on next

That’s all for this week! Next week we’ll be doing our QUERY CRITIQUE podcast!

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2. Building Blocks of a Novel: Word Choice

Hi all, Julie here!

Recently I found myself looking out a hotel room window at a cityscape. The view made me think of the components of a city—streets made up of buildings, buildings made up of walls, walls made up of bricks.

I found myself thinking of all the unnoticed bricks that were holding up the city below my window.

This observation got me thinking about novels. I started considering all the components of a novel—chapters made up of scenes, scenes made up of paragraphs, paragraphs made up of sentences, sentences made up of words.

This whole metaphor gave me the idea for a series on the building blocks of a novel. This post will be on words—the most basic building block. The next will be about sentences, then paragraphs, then scenes, then chapters. Of course, most things as intricate as a novel are greater than the sum of their parts, so maybe the final post in the series will be about how a novel transcends (or hopes to transcend) all these things that go into it.

Starting with words.

Word choice is one of the most fundamental aspects of writing, so much so that we don’t talk about it much. But the wrong word can leave writing flat or confusing, and more importantly, the right word can make writing come alive on the page.

There are so many ways in which word choice impacts a piece of writing! Since we’re talking about novels, I want to focus on clarity, voice, and sound.

Clarity

One of the most powerful things about word choice is the subtle change in meaning that can happen when a writer changes just one word. Consider the differences between the following:

“She dropped the package to the ground.”

“She chucked the package to the ground.”

“She hurled the package to the ground.”

Swap package with bundle and ground with pavement and the meaning changes even more. Consider the difference between “She dropped the package to the ground,” and “She hurled the bundle to the pavement.”

This is a painfully simple example, and the lesson here is so basic and elementary, it’s easy to assume this is something we all know how to do and dive into what we perceive as more “advanced” methods of improving our writing. But all the symbolism and metaphors and motifs in the world won’t rescue a sentence from the wrong words. Without clarity, our meaning is lost. We can all think of at least one book we’ve read that felt muddled and murky. Just as you wouldn’t want to watch a movie that was shot through a blurry lens, you wouldn’t want to read an out-of-focus story. Word choice instills meaning and tone, and without intentional language those things suffer.

Voice

Word choice has a huge impact on that elusive aspect of writing we call voice. There are many ways to define voice, but for this post, I’ll turn to something Kat Zhang wrote in a fabulous post on the subject for this blog:

“Voice is, I think, the way a story is told. Just as how the same piece of music sounds quite different if played on a violin versus a flute (or sung by a choir or a rapper), a story that involves that same plot, characters, world, etc, can still change a lot depending on the voice used to tell it.”

By carefully selecting the right words, a writer can alter the voice of a story from tense to sarcastic to poetic. I often turn to The Catcher in the Rye when I need an example of a story told with a distinct and unmistakable voice. Imagine how word choice would affect the voice of just the first line:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

~ JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.

If Salinger had changed just a few words—substituting painful for lousy and stuff for crap, for instance, the voice would have been significantly altered.

This example also demonstrates how strongly word choice impacts characterization, especially in a first person narrative. But even in third person, word choice will help or hinder characterization. If I write, “The family always dined at six,” your idea of the characters will be different than if I write, “The family always ate at six,” or “The family always broke bread at six.”

Rhythm and Sound

I’ve written about adding sound to your prose on the blog before, but I want to mention it here because sound ties in to any discussion of word choice. Comedy illustrates this beautifully. Think of Bill Murray’s line in the movie Stripes: “That’s the fact Jack!” So much of that comedic moment relies on the sound and rhythm of the words. Comedian Brian Regan has a whole bit about forgetting to do a project for science when he was in the sixth grade and handing in a “cup o’ dirt.” The entire joke depends on the staccato sound of the words. If Regan had said he handed in a “container of soil,” the joke would lose all of its impact. Of course, the importance of choosing words for their sound and rhythm applies to all writing, not just comedy. If you can think of a book that received praise for its lyrical prose or its taut tension, you can be sure it contains excellent examples of words carefully chosen for their sound.

Returning to our metaphor of a city, the words you choose for your novel really are comparable to the bricks used by the builder. When bricks are well chosen and do their job, they go unnoticed. They hold everything in place and create beauty and function. The words you choose will do the same. The right words will hold up the structure of your novel and give it style without calling attention to themselves.

What are your thoughts on word choice? Do you have any advice to add? Please share your ideas in the comments!

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3. Craft of Writing: The Secret Art of Word Choice by Kristin Bailey Plus GIVEAWAY!

The second book in Kristin Bailey's The Secret Order is here and you have a chance to win it today! RISE OF THE ARCANE FIRE came out in February and has readers just as enthralled as they were in the first book. Kristin is here with us today talking about how a single word can leave a huge impact.

The Secret Art of Word Choice by Kristin Bailey


World building is a tricky and necessary task for every novel. Whether you're building a world within a suburban high school in Colorado, or a high fantasy realm in an alternate universe, the world a story inhabits should become real for the reader. Many writers get caught up in building their world in the form of worksheets and intricate guides for their stories, and that is great. The better you know your world, the better it comes across on the page.

But there is a more subtle form of world building that we should all pay attention to, word choice.

Word choice is deceptively simple. It is the art of choosing which words to use on the page. When it comes to world building, though, things can get a little tricky. An author can do a lot to set the tone of a book with single words placed here and there. If I choose to use the words timepiece, correspondence, visage, or comeuppance, you immediately know you're reading a historical novel. If I use neurotransmitter, biosource, transwaves, or molteric transponders, you know you're probably looking at some form of science fiction.

Every setting, every world, has a dictionary that comes along with it, even if you have to make that dictionary up. The trick with word choice is that it is a lot like using a potent spice while cooking. Just enough makes things interesting, too much, and you've ruined the soup.

This is especially true, ironically, for contemporary novels. Writers often feel a pressure to add "modern slang" to a story to make it feel authentic, but that same language can turn things anachronistic and stale very quickly, or, in the case of too many curse words, the words themselves lose their impact. Along the same lines, if there are too many "historical" word choices in a short passage, it can go from feeling authentic to a farce very quickly.

There's something about, "Lady Beatrice adjusted her wide crinoline and clutched her reticule, before alighting from her curricle on the drive of Wingwick manor. Lord Dolton had a sullen look upon his visage as his normal perambulation became hasty," that just feels forced.

So, how do you use just the right amount of spice? As I write my first draft, I tend to do it with fairly neutral language with my focus on avoiding language that doesn't belong in my world. That way, the writing has a base that is easy to read and feels solid and clear. In revisions I look for moments where I can change a word here, or tweak a description there with something that feels more specific to my world. In doing that adjustment on the revision instead of the draft, I avoid overwhelming the text with too many technical or historical terms.

However you handle it, word choice is important so take care with it.

Words are what we do, let's use them well.

About The Author


Kristin Bailey grew up in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley in California. As a kid she enjoyed visiting the beach, camping and skiing with her two brothers.

Now she is a military wife and mother of two young children. She is also terrible about spoiling her pets. She has one fluffy mutt, two cats who think they own the world, and a fish tank with some really plump little fish and a pair of snails who are secretly ninja assassins.

In the course of her adventures, she has worked as a zookeeper, balloon artist, and substitute teacher. Now she enjoys writing books for teens who enjoy mystery and adventure as much as she does.


Website | Twitter | Goodreads

About The Book


After her parents died in a fire and her grandfather disappeared, Meg Whitlock thought her life had come to a standstill. But when she learned that the pocket watch her grandfather left her was really an intricate key, Meg, with the help of a stable hand named Will, uncovered the Amusementists: members of an elite secret society dedicated to discovery and shrouded in mystery.

Now the Amusementists are convening in London, and Meg is determined to join their ranks. But being the first girl in the Order has its difficulties, and with Will away in Scotland Meg fears she can’t trust anyone but herself. Her worries are only supported by the sabotage happening at the academy, with each altered invention being more harmful than the last.

With threats lurking around every corner, and while trying to prove her worth as the first female Amusementist, Meg must uncover the identity of the academy’s saboteur before the botched devices become deadly. And after she finds evidence of a sinister and forbidden invention, Meg must stop it - or risk the entire future of the Amusementists.

Amazon | IndieBound | Goodreads

And now for the awesome giveaway Kristin has so graciously provided! Your chance to win a signed copy of RISE OF THE ARCANE FIRE!

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4. It’s a Words World

Photo | EKHumphrey

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For my editing, I generally use the Merriam-Webster’s or the American Heritage online dictionaries. My books collect more dust than they used to, which means I spend less time distracted by perusing nearby entries. My rate for learning new words has plummeted.
A few months ago, I bought myself a calendar with a word for each day. I hadn’t owned one in several years and this one became lost in a sock drawer until well into January, but that’s for another post.
In addition to writing, I figured I might find the calendar useful to challenge, in the words of the fictional detective Hercule Poirot, the “little gray cells.” (Granted, many online dictionaries provide some way to push out a word per day, but I like the tactile experience of a page to rip off.)
Without any space to write down appointments or accomplishments, I enjoy the daily calendar as a way to mark the passage of time and I’ve saved many of the words I’ve torn off. I keep a stack on my desk. When I have time, I flip through and try to learn some unfamiliar words, such as calenture, moiety and nyctalopia. I position the calendar where I can easily see it and I look forward to the task each day.
It is a gentle reminder to keep learning, while giving me a different challenge than writing, researching or reading gives. And, although there is no vocabulary quiz each week as happened in elementary school, I like to try to keep my word muscles exercising and stretching.
You never know when you’ll get to use trichotillomania (an abnormal desire to pull out one’s hair) in a sentence. Knowing how unique puissantis compared to power and potent, even though they share a common Latin parentage, can help when choosing the perfect word.
With the tens of thousands of words we learn as we grow, I’ve been amazed at how many words and definitions I’ve forgotten, misused or stopped using through the years.
As a writer, I know that words are my business. The calendar reminds me of that each and every day.

Do you try to keep your vocabulary growing? If so, how do you do it?

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer and editor. Her The Feminist Movement Today (Mason Crest, 2013) was recently selected for the Amelia Bloomer List.

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5. A Small Exercise that Will Improve your Word Choice

by Julie Eshbaugh

~~~

JulieRegular readers of this blog know that I generally write posts about the craft of writing. This post will be a little bit different. Yes, it’s about how to improve your writing, but today I’d like to focus on a single, simple change you can make that will increase your language creativity and force you to think about the specificity and clarity of words several times a day.

I would like to challenge you to remove the words “awesome,” and “amazing” from your vocabulary, and replace them with words that offer more precision (depending on the use.) Try this exercise for a month, a week – even just a day. If you are like me, what you learn will surprise you.

A few months ago I found a list of words that can be substituted for “awesome” on the web (I’m no longer certain where I saw this list, but similar lists can be found with simple web searches. You can also search for words that can be used in place of “amazing” and “cool.”)

Once I found this list (it was at least 25 words long) I started brainstorming words of my own. At this point, I was just playing around, since I really didn’t realize how frequently I went to the word “awesome” as a shortcut word.

Of course, the next time I turned to Twitter, email, texting, or tried to draft a comment on a blog post, I was horrified to discover how these two words – awesome and amazing – had become my go-to words to describe everything from good news about a friend’s new job to a video of a cat. Surely these two things weren’t so similar that they merited the same word to describe them!

So I gave myself a challenge – I wouldn’t use the words “awesome” or “amazing” (in writing – I’m sure I still let them slip in conversation from time to time,) as long as I could find a more specific, fresh, appropriate word.

I have been fairly successful, and I’ve learned a few things about myself, about the people I communicate with, and about the power of words along the way.

I learned that it can take a few long seconds to find the best word when you take “awesome” out of your vocabulary. It can take even longer if you force yourself to find a word that actually describes your thoughts precisely (that is, not just turning to “fantastic” or “great,” though I did fall back on those from time to time.) However, over time, I learned to say something was “inspiring” or “thought-provoking” or “game-changing” or even “I’m so proud of you” instead of “that’s awesome.” I hope this has made my interpersonal communication more meaningful.

I learned that people expect shortcut words. The first time I told a coworker that her presentation was “aces” instead of “awesome” it got a big reaction. It also started a discussion about word use, (and probably confirmed some suspicions that I am the weird word girl in the office.)

I’ve learned that words are ours to use, and we neglect the strength of our communication and our own breadth of vocabulary when we fall back on the same words again and again. After a few weeks of taking on this challenge, I noticed my personal vocabulary gaining a lot more strength. I saw much bigger rewards than you would expect from such a simple exercise.

I do want to be clear that I’m not advocating that we all drop the words “awesome,” “cool,” or “amazing” from our vocabularies forever. I firmly believe that shortcuts in communication have their place and can be very appropriate. However, if you find that you are over-generalizing in your own word use, you may want to drop your “pet words” for a while and see what happens.

Have you ever caught yourself falling back on the same few words as shortcuts in your own communication? Are they words other than “awesome” or “amazing?” Please share your thoughts in the comments!

 ~~~

Julie Eshbaugh writes fiction for young adults. She is represented by Adams Literary. You can add Julie on Goodreads and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

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6. Purple Prose



Purple prose consists of passages so cloying, over the top, or dramatic that they create speed bumps for the reader. It employs an abundance of adjectives and dense descriptive detail. 

Purple prose should be weeded out when found, unless that is your preferred writing style. In which case, you may deter some readers and agents. 

The worst offenders are romantic scenes, because writers try to avoid clinical terms for the acts of love and body parts. A lot of slang words are too crude and don't fit the mood of the piece. 

Purple prose can be a product of weak description writing. Some writers stuff so many descriptions in a paragraph the reader forgets the topic.

1) Avoid using annoying phrases:

  • bated breath (not baited!)
  • cupid lips,
  • framed by
  • heart-shaped face
  • limped pools
  • manly chin
  • revealed
  • set off by
  • steely eyes
  • heaving or swelling bosom,
  • tumescent member
  • twirling lock of hair
  • wriggling eyebrows

2) Avoid melodramatic descriptions:

Her ample bosom heaved as he slowly untied her frilled, satin night dress. His caress made her tremble like a delicate blossom in the breeze as he nibbled on the petals of her ears.

3) Avoid descriptions that go on ... and on ... and on. 

She stood there, like a pale lilly, swaying in the wind, her corn silk hair floating around her heart-shaped face like golden cloud, obscuring her sky-blue eyes. The flyaway strands parted as her rosebud lips pursed and blew them aside. Her gauzy white gown clung to her voluptuous curves. She was the absolute embodiment of a seductive angel.

An effective cumulative sentence (base clause plus two or three descriptive phrases) is a master craft. Stuffing as many fluffy descriptions as you can think of into a sentence is not masterful.

REVISION TIPS


?  Have you used melodrama intentionally, such as in dialogue or poking fun of a situation?
? Can you tone it down?
? Have you committed purple prose abuse?
? Does the language fit the background and personality of the character uttering it?

For all of the revision tips on purple prose and other revision layers, pick up a copy of: 

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7. Voice Begins with Word Choices

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Voice begins with the right choice of words

Word choices matter!

Each story or novel has its own diction, or the group of words that could be used for this story. For example, a historical fiction would have different word choices than a romantic comedy. Of course, there’s lots of overlap, but each story has certain words that you would say are inappropriate or are exactly right. In other words, the story is a context for making choices; and each choice will affect the overall context.

  1. Word origins can make a difference: fire is a strong Anglo-Saxon word, while inferno is a Latin-based word.
  2. Length or syllable count matter: fire is single syllable, while inferno has three syllables.
  3. The connotations of words matter. Does inferno carry connotations of hell? While fire makes you think of a cozy campfire? Connotations can be personal, but they also are cultural and these nuances matter.
  4. The formality of words, from formal to informal, can change voice.
  5. Progressions–for example, comparative to superlative–also affect voice.
  6. Jargon is the specialized vocabulary for a subject: for example, in baseball, you would talk about steals, earned runs and RBIs. Slang is contemporary language that means something to today’s audience only.

Words That Mean Something Else

Classic rhetoric discusses tropes, or the ways that words are used. Sometimes we call this figurative language, but it’s mostly how the word is used. Here are some common tropes.

  1. Metaphor/Simile: Two unlike things are said to be alike. The comparison is implied for a metaphor, but explicit for a simile.
    Ex. Eating, he was a pig.
    He ate like a pig.
  2. Synecdoche: Part stand for the whole.
    Ex. He’s in trouble with the law. (Law stands for police or legal system.)
  3. Syllepsis: Use of one verb that is understood differently in relation to two or more objects.
    Ex. His boat and his dreams sank.
  4. Anthimeria: One part of speech is exchanged for another.
    Ex. They enrolled in parenting class. (Parent is a noun used as an adjective.)
  5. Periphrasis: Substitution of one or more descriptive words for a proper name.
    Ex. Blue-Eyes can croon a great tune.
  6. Personification: Attribution of human qualities to inanimate objects or abstractions.
    Ex. No one, not even rain, has such small hands. (e.e. cummings)
  7. Litotes: Use of understatement to intensify an idea. It usually involves denying the contrary.
    Ex. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain. —J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  8. Oxymoron: Juxtaposition of two contradictory words.
    Ex. To win is to lose.

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8. Winner of The Christmas Village and My Sister is My Best Friend

Before I talk about the new TRILINGUAL picture book, My Sister is My Best Friend by Nicole Weaver (Guardian Angel Publishing), I would like to announce the winner of Melissa Goodwin’s book, The Christmas Village. The winner is Beth F.! Thank you, Beth, for your comment, and happy holidays to everyone who left a comment and shared a tradition.

Now on to. . .My Sister is My Best Friend:

*Picture book, contemporary fiction for preschool through 1st graders
*Two twin girls as main characters
*Rating: A sweet book, especially for anyone (young or old!) with sisters. Plus, children can start to learn some Spanish and French while reading the book. It celebrates FAMILY!

Short, short summary:

Nicole Weaver’s book begins with these lines: “I am lucky my sister is my best friend. We do everything together.” And then the Spanish and French are listed neatly underneath the English AND accompanied by super-cute illustrations by Clara Batton Smith. The book goes on (it’s more like a concept book about family/sisters than a story with a problem/solution) to tell the interesting things the sisters like to do together such as playing with their dog, riding the see-saw at the park, and chasing butterflies. Again, each page contains a cute illustration and the text in English, French, and Spanish. A great book for a classroom or for a home library!

So, what do I do with this book?

1. There’s an automatic lesson built into this book, which is always great for any parent, teacher, or librarian. Children can see how English translates into French and Spanish. They can try to pick out the important words like sister and friend. If you know someone who can speak Spanish/French, invite them in to read the book with a proper accent! :)

2. Your students/child can make a similar book about their sister, brother, mom, dad, cousin, and so on. For example, one child could create: My Mother is My Best Friend; another could write My Cousin is My Best Friend. After children write a few pages (or just illustrate if they are preschoolers), they can share their pages/books with classmates.

3. Nicole Weaver has included some wonderful details and word choice in her picture book. For example, take this page (in English): “Sometimes just for fun, we shriek and run as fast as we can …pretending to be orangutans.” The six plus one traits of writing, Word Choice, celebrates words such as “shriek” or the choice of pretending to be orangutans, instead of just monkeys. Both of these words present clear images in the readers’ mind. What other examples of good word choice can readers find in the book?

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9. Even the Best of Intentions

I had the best of intentions to do a blog post on this book: That’s My Dog before I went out of town. However, I’m still getting my stuff together and now my dear daughter is crying. :) So, I will do this book justice with three activities on another day, but I want to tell you that if you have never checked it out, you must do so at the link below.

It is a book that will help children understand adjectives, how to make their writing more specific, word choice, superlatives and more. Plus, my daughter as a toddler LOVES DOGS–so even she can appreciate the book because she loves the illustrations and the simple text.

Go to your library, check out this book!

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10. What’s Your Intent?

At VCFA we talk a lot about writing with intention, about making choices, and thinking about affect. This is a topic that has been in the back of my mind lately, but was recently pulled to the front of it by the superb film Drive.

The film (directed by Nicolas Winding Refen and staring Ryan Gossling) is about a car stunt-man turned get-away driver who gets mixed up in the wrong deal. It’s not the storyline that struck me. What pulled me into this movie was its poetic quality, its economy, its precision. The music interwove with the imagery, the lighting transitioned you from one point of focus to the next, the dialog was spot on, and the silence was even stronger. This well oiled- machine was carefully crafted, and every choice on the screen was chosen, specific, and created with intent!

The effect was mesmerizing.

This movie got me thinking about words and how we use them. We don’t have actors and lighting equipment and soundtracks to illuminate our stories, we have words. So, which words can create the perfect flare of light, or punctuate a  shift of the eyes, or create the contrast between silence and violence? There isn’t a correct answer to that question, other than to consider your intent. What words, in what arrangement, and in what rhythm and pacing will best bring your intent to light? Every word counts! Every one!

I suggest renting Drive and paying attention to the choices, the pacing, the lighting, the framing of shots, the lingering of shots, and how it moves like a dance or a song. There is something very poetic about this film, pointing out that it is the way a story is told – the choices, the intent – that gives it its power to cast a spell over you. Then pick up a favorite book and pay attention to the words. What makes you feel an emotion? What words pull your focus? What rhythms make your heart race or slow it down? Does the intended effect work? Then think about your own WIP and how you can write with intention. One of the great lessons from Drive (in my opinion) is that every moment is essential, economical, and necessary! It’s a great reminder to avoid lazy writing and to think about the effect of each word we place on the page.

Just a quick warning, if you do choose to watch Drive, please know that it is a very violent film.


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11. Finding My Place Word Choice Lesson

Final Finding My Place Cover

Here’s a simple word choice lesson you can do with kids while reading FINDING MY PLACE: ONE GIRL’S STRENGTH AT VICKSBURG or really any historical fiction book. Word choice is one of the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing.

One thing about the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing that I love is that these are the terms that professional writers use–from voice to word choice. So, when talking to kids about word choice, using a published book, you can say: “Authors have to make decisions about word choice all the time. Here’s this author’s story.”

When I wrote Finding My Place, it was very hard for me to write from a 13-year-old girl’s point of view during THE CIVIL WAR. I remembered being 13, so it was easy for me to get feelings down. But I kept using contemporary words. My critique group would say, “I don’t think people used the word OKAY or STUPID in 1863 like they do today. That doesn’t sound natural.” My word choice was off, and it messed with the authenticity of my book. So, I had to find words that did make sense during 1863, such as Anna calling James, “a loon,” or saying, “all right” instead of “okay.” I also tried to put a little Southern flavor in my dialogue through word choice instead of writing out how they might have talked. For example, Mrs. Franklin uses “y’all” and the kids refer to the Union Soldiers as “Blue Bellies” and “Yankees.”

Another thing that I had trouble with in dealing with word choice is using the words bomb and shell. First of all, I had to find ways not to repeat bomb or shell a million times during the periods in my book when the characters were experiencing being bombed. And people would argue with me that Vicksburg citizens wouldn’t have said, “BOMB!” Luckily, I read a diary from a woman who lived during 1863, and she used the words “shell” and “bomb” in her entries.

What you can do with children to discuss word choice in a mini-lesson is: pick a line or two out of the book–this can be done in any chapter and with any character and even with narrative. CHANGE some of the word choices to inappropriate ones and see how children think and work to improve the word choice. Then share the original lines from the book with them.

As I said, this can be done with any historical fiction book or really any book with strong word choice. Children LOVE to correct you or the author, and will work hard to find words that are unique and specific in this exercise.

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12. The Right Word

Mark Twain QuoteMark Twain famously once said “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter – it is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”

As writers it’s important to know that we’re more than storytellers, we are wordsmiths! Every word we type has potential to do more than convey character and plot. Our words can also deepen the mood and emotional resonance in our novels.

Ilsa J. Bick is a master of this technique. In her apocalyptic zombie novel, Ashes, Bick intensifies each page with the danger of her world through the use of aggressive words. In the following examples Bick uses the violent words of: slash, spear, and pierced, to describe otherwise peaceful images.

ashes_sales-1“She registered the slash of morning sun in an already too-bright and very cold room…” (301).

“She heard the creak of Tom’s footsteps overhead, and a spear of light pierced the darkness as he shone his flashlight down the stairs” (159).

Bick’s words are doing double-duty. They not only convey the imagery and action of the scene but they also infuse each sentence with emotional stakes. Never once does Bick’s protagonist feel free of the horror that surrounds her. This is because Bick allows her powerful word choices to accumulate over the entire novel, creating an air of danger that is unconsciously felt by the reader.

Two Great Exercises to Learn How to Do This Yourself:

Exercise #1: Scene Analysis

Pick a scene in a book where you (as reader) felt an emotional connection. Perhaps this was a scene that made you cry, or cringe, or got your blood pumping. Re-read the scene and pick out the words that relate to the emotion you felt. Take a look at those words and how they’re used. Become aware of when a specific word choice affected you unconsciously!

Exercise #2: Write with Word Lists

A great way to use this technique in your own work is to create word-lists. Ask yourself what the emotional mood of the scene you’re writing is (i.e. fear, nervousness, lust, etc.). Now write a list of words that invoke this feeling for you. For example, if the feeling is nervousness, my words list could include:

wobble
chatter
prickle
tremble
ice
upturn
squeamish
clench

As you go to write your scene, try to use some of your words. You don’t have to use all of them, and you will easily start to come up with new ones as you write. But when you’re done you’ll find a new emotional layer has been added to your work with the touch of a few carefully chosen words.

If you’re interested in word choice and the use of language, also check out these great articles:

This article was originally published on THE PARKING LOT CONFESSIONAL in 2011. 


2 Comments on The Right Word, last added: 9/3/2013
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13. The Right Word

Mark Twain QuoteMark Twain famously once said “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter – it is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”

As writers it’s important to know that we’re more than storytellers, we are wordsmiths! Every word we type has potential to do more than convey character and plot. Our words can also deepen the mood and emotional resonance in our novels.

Ilsa J. Bick is a master of this technique. In her apocalyptic zombie novel, Ashes, Bick intensifies each page with the danger of her world through the use of aggressive words. In the following examples Bick uses the violent words of: slash, spear, and pierced, to describe otherwise peaceful images.

ashes_sales-1“She registered the slash of morning sun in an already too-bright and very cold room…” (301).

“She heard the creak of Tom’s footsteps overhead, and a spear of light pierced the darkness as he shone his flashlight down the stairs” (159).

Bick’s words are doing double-duty. They not only convey the imagery and action of the scene but they also infuse each sentence with emotional stakes. Never once does Bick’s protagonist feel free of the horror that surrounds her. This is because Bick allows her powerful word choices to accumulate over the entire novel, creating an air of danger that is unconsciously felt by the reader.

Two Great Exercises to Learn How to Do This Yourself:

Exercise #1: Scene Analysis

Pick a scene in a book where you (as reader) felt an emotional connection. Perhaps this was a scene that made you cry, or cringe, or got your blood pumping. Re-read the scene and pick out the words that relate to the emotion you felt. Take a look at those words and how they’re used. Become aware of when a specific word choice affected you unconsciously!

Exercise #2: Write with Word Lists

A great way to use this technique in your own work is to create word-lists. Ask yourself what the emotional mood of the scene you’re writing is (i.e. fear, nervousness, lust, etc.). Now write a list of words that invoke this feeling for you. For example, if the feeling is nervousness, my words list could include:

wobble
chatter
prickle
tremble
ice
upturn
squeamish
clench

As you go to write your scene, try to use some of your words. You don’t have to use all of them, and you will easily start to come up with new ones as you write. But when you’re done you’ll find a new emotional layer has been added to your work with the touch of a few carefully chosen words.

If you’re interested in word choice and the use of language, also check out these great articles:

This article was originally published on THE PARKING LOT CONFESSIONAL in 2011. 


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14. How to Ruin Your Novel’s Opening with a Few Wrong Words


READ A SAMPLE CHAPTER: Now Available

The Girl, the Gypsy & the Gargoyle by Darcy Pattison.

Choosing the right set of words–the diction of your novel–is crucial, especially in the opening pages of your novel. Novels are a context for making choices, and within that context, some words make sense and some don’t.

A novel sets up a certain setting, time period, tone, mood and sensibilities and you must not violate this. If you are writing a gothic romance, the language must reflect this. For thrillers, the fast paced action demands a certain vocabulary. Violating these restrictions means a bump in the reader’s experience that may make them put down the book.

Let’s look at some examples. This is from my book, SAUCY AND BUBBA: A HANSEL AND GRETEL TALE.
S&B COVER3-CS.inddJust from the title you know that this is a contemporary retelling of Hansel and Gretel and this sets up expectations for the language that will be used. This is a first look at Krissy, the stepmother.

Krissy was singing to herself. Gingerbread days were filled with music, too. Once a month, Krissy made a gingerbread house and took it into town to sell to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then donated it to a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and pored over them.

Let’s substitute a couple words and see if it bothers you as a reader:

Krissy was caterwauling to herself. Gingerbread days were crammed with music, too. Once a month, Krissy slapped together a gingerbread house and took it into town to peddle to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then dumped it off at a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and flipped through them.

I’ve been extreme here in word choice, of course. The key is to listen to your story. Where are the places where a single word might interrupt the narrative? Work hard to control your word choices and the overall diction of your story. And I’ll stay with you for the whole book.

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15. BWA-HA-HA-HA! You Had Me For a Second There.

Okay okay. Joke's over, Ireland. You've had your little laugh and we all totally fell for it. Phew! I'm still wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes.

So.... like, seriously. Who ACTUALLY won the Irish Book Award in the children's category? Cause... you're not ..... it didn't....

Really?

Thanks to bookshelves of doom for a bit of "hunhuna?".

3 Comments on BWA-HA-HA-HA! You Had Me For a Second There., last added: 3/21/2007
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16. The Nearly Missed Rant

Just last Thursday I missed a perfectly lovely rant on Book Book Book and it almost got away from me. Fortunately the author linked to me and I was able to find it at the very last minute. It's a collection of thoughts on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a book that Hollywood's under the impression they should make. Hollywood, for the record, is incorrect in this assumption. Check out why.

1 Comments on The Nearly Missed Rant, last added: 4/6/2007
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17. Editor Ruta Rimas on what makes a great book


Revision update: On chapter 14 out of 30. I still think I can make my end of February goal.

In my first post about the Houston SCBWI conference, I’m featuring some tips from Balzer & Bray editor Ruta Rimas. Energetic, knowledgeable and obviously passionate about books, Ruta advised authors to read books by the authors they love both for pleasure and craft.

She gave a some examples of books she thought were worth reading:

Ruta also recommended Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and quoted the book as telling writers to put “every word on trial for its life.” I love that!

To do that, Ruta told writers to look at their work in progress and:

  • choose a section and look at the words. What words stick out? How do the words support the theme

    2 Comments on Editor Ruta Rimas on what makes a great book, last added: 2/25/2010
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18. Focus on a Skill: Elaboration

So often student writing efforts are what I call "bare bones." Student writing lacks muscle and flesh and features, due to a paucity of specific verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Students often have also not had instruction in showing versus telling.

The best remedy for this, of course, is for students to examine excellent writing. As students read exempary passages, they need to ask:


  • What's happening here that's not happening in my own writing?

  • What choices has the author made?

  • What has been included to provide me with a picture of what's happening?

  • What has the author deliberately left out for the reader to piece together?

  • Sometimes the missing piece of the puzzle is simply word choice. When teaching my students the importance of using alternatives to "said," for example, I assigned pairs of students two chapters from Gordon Korman's Swindle. Korman is a master at crafting realistic dialogue, and in one chapter alone a student found thirty speaking words other than said, and the word said itself was used just five times (and most often with an adverb). (Using just a portion of a novel like this to examine craft absolutely works! You can use online book trailers to fill in the missing information, or to give a complete picture of the story line).

    At other times, the details which are important and of interest to the reader simply aren't fleshed out. If you need a wonderful example for this skill of elaboration, I recommend Daniel Boone's Great Escape, written by Micahel P. Spradlin and illustrated by Ard Hoyt. This book, filled with action and suspense, and described with strong verbs and vivid details, is inspired by just a single line in Boone's diary!

    A great extension would have students choose historical events from their typically brief descriptions in textbooks and "blow them up." Will some imagination be involved? Yes. Will some "liberties be taken? Yes. But I think if we resign ourselves to those concessions, and rightfully call our pieces historical fiction, we can then focus on the craft of elaboration.

    Need a couple more books for ideas? Check out the extremely descriptive language of The Scarlet Stockings Spy, written by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Robert Papp, or the humorous, fictional retellings of great lives in Lane Smith's John, Paul, George and Ben. Both books are described in a previous post on The American Revolution.
    19. Faith Hunter on Choosing Your Words


    Here's some food for thought on word choice and pacing. The principles she illustrates are spot on. She also provides some interesting examples and analysis.

    http://magicalwords.net/faith-hunter/word-choice-part-1/

    Pace yourselves when writing and eat some chocolate,

    Martina

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    20. Every Word Counts

    When I was in high school, I took all the standard English courses. In college, I took quite a few literature courses that involved reading great books and writing papers about them. And then I went to journalism school and learned a whole new kind of writing.

    In traditional journalism, paragraphs are short and succinct. Quotations from experts cement the story together. The beginning is critical. It must grab the reader’s attention. But the ending doesn’t really matter too much. There’s a gopod chance it will get cut at page make up. And even if it doesn’t, most people never read that far. That lazy attitude toward endings must have had a big effect on me because, to this day, I still have trouble with them.

    Newspaper writing is about being fast and thorough, about getting both sides of a story. And above all else, it’s about being accurate. If we misspelled a person’s name or the name of an organization or company, we got an automatic F.

    A few of the classes I took in grad school focused on feature writing. Features are the longer, more in-depth pieces that run in a newspaper’s Sunday magazine section and in most monthly publications. They take longer to research and write, and they may include some creative elements, such as a scene-setting lede or occasional wordplay.

    I loved writing features, and the instructor told me I had a good ear for language. She wasn’t the first person to day that. English teachers and professors had told me that all through school, but I never really knew what they meant. I did ask a couple of times, but their explanations didn’t help much.

    Finally, when I joined a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) critique group in 2001, I met a poet named Susan Richmond. She made the same comment, and I asked the same question.

    But Susan’s answer wasn’t the same at all. What she did was remarkable. She took the time to deconstruct a piece of my writing and show me exactly what she meant.

    Even though I was unconscious of it, my brain was often making very deliberate word choices. As a result, some sections of my prose were a bit lyrical. A whole new world opened up to me as Susan explained that certain combinations of sounds and syllables are especially pleasing to the ear—it’s a matter of physics. Susan thought that if I paid more attention to this aspect of my writing, it would become even more lyrical.

    And so I did. And so it has.

    Now, when I go to schools and talk to kids about writing. I tell them to pay attention to the words and phrases they string together. The truth is every word counts.

    2 Comments on Every Word Counts, last added: 5/12/2010
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    21. A Rose By Another Other Name?

    Before I became a kids’ book author, I wrote magazine articles including an interview with Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners. Among other things, I asked her if she had ever been stumped by a question of etiquette. Only one, she replied, finding a good way to refer to the person someone lives with but is not married to. Partner seems like a business relationship. Boyfriend is frankly weird after 30 years of cohabitation or if that “boy” is gray or bald. Lover much the same. POSSLQ or "Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters," a term coined in the late 1970s by the Census Bureau? Please.

    As we all know, words matter. So what about the one that describes our genre of writing: nonfiction. I used to feel just fine about it, but now I have a slight twinge. After all, it does have a negative point of reference. The “I’m not fiction” instead of the “I am something” kind of writing. Hmmm.

    When I started doing school visits years ago, I heard educators using the term informational writing. Frankly I hate that even more. It sounds like we write instructions for assembling bookshelves. Yes, nonfiction transmits information, but while doing so it can also convey the magic and wonder of the world in words funny or beautiful.

    Creative nonfiction, which could accurately describe many of our books? Not horrible, despite the basic “un-fiction” problem mentioned earlier. At least it acknowledges that we use the same arsenal of literary tools as the fiction folks: story, setting, characters, conflict, dialogue (or quotations in our case). And most importantly, imagination. But I’ve learned that creative nonfiction does not refer to the Michael Pollans or Susan Orleans in the adult world and the Jennifer Armstrongs and Elizabeth Partridges in ours. Instead it most often means memoirs, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.

    So, what are we to do? Ask Miss Manners? Come up with a new word? Ms. made it into our language, although POSSLQ died a warranted death. Or, should we remember 7-Up’s old ad campaign where it celebrated itself as the Uncola—the break from the ordinary, the un and only—and wear the nonfiction name with pride.

    2 Comments on A Rose By Another Other Name?, last added: 7/12/2010
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    22. Making the Transition

    I’ve spent some time today reading a terrific little book of writing instruction for both the beginning and experienced writer. The book’s been around for a long while.

    After some thought,  I have some questions regarding how certain aspects of writing discussed in the book are handled by today’s editors. I’d like to address one aspect in particular.

    Transitions

    In Brandon Rotal’s Little Red Writing Book the subject of transitions placed near the beginning. Rotal goes through the four types of transitions: contrast, illustration, continuation, and conclusion. All writers use transitions. They’re a necessary step in moving an essay, article, or story from start to finish.

    Regardless of transition’s importance, in much of today’s editorial preference, specific transition words are currently discouraged. I’ve read recent articles written about the overuse of “however”, “though”, “therefore”, “but, etc. I’ve been told by various other writers to limit my use of such traffic signals in my writing.

    Two important questions arise for me. How do transitions happen without initial trigger words? Does a writer’s style dictate use of transition words?

    New Transitions

    Whether a writer has fifteen years freelance experience or a mere few months, small considerations such as transitions can make or break an acceptance in today’s competitive market. If former transition words are no longer received favorably, something else must take their place.

    Let’s start with the contrast transitions. If “however,”  “but,”  “on the other hand”, etc. doesn’t cut it anymore, there are ways to shift thoughts. After all, the brain does it all day long.

    For instance: Rather than say “However, we couldn’t move the fallen tree without more industrial power,” create a substitute. Try something like “Moving the fallen tree would require more industrial power than we possessed.”

    The meaning remains the same. The sentence is stronger. The traditional transition was eliminated.

    “Nevertheless” can be left behind for “Notwithstanding.” It isn’t used as often. The key is to refrain from using it often. Of course, the writer doesn’t have to use any trigger words.

    Example: “Nevertheless, the fallen tree would take more resources to remove than we had available.” becomes “Without bringing in additional resources from outside, we couldn’t move the fallen tree.”

    The latter transition takes one less word and doesn’t use trigger words.

    Using Style Transitions

    As seen above, the writer uses a shift of thought to bring about transition in subject direction. Transitions don’t have to be abrupt and jarring. The writer can slide through them without breaking for turns.

    For example: “While writing this piece I’ve had to think up more unusual transitions than I’ve taken time for in many weeks. Normally, I don’t sit and ponder the use of traditional transition words. I could get stuck in each sentence, if I allowed myself that luxury.

     Instead, I try to ignore the existence of traditional transition words. I think of them as unnecessary descriptors and work to leave them out of my writing.  It’s difficult, especially when a person has to change a total perception of proper writing style.”

    New Version: “As I write this I have to create many new transitions. To eliminate the difficulty, I try to ignore the existence of traditional transitions. Shifting thought allows the writer to say as much in a more fluid way. If I think of transition words as unnecessary descriptors, my writing flows with strength and clarity.

    The second version says the same thing as the first. The difference is length and flow. Personally, I like it better than the first one. In the end, that’s all that matters. If it works better, the likelihood of an editor liking it, too, increases, which is the final writer

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