Tools of the Trade, Part 1: Words

ster•e•o•type  /ˈsterēəˌtīp/ noun 1. a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

I get this. If you’re an indie author, you get this, because, let’s face it, indies have a bad rep in some circles. Now we can’t do jack about folks who believe writing is easy, and/or we’re in this for the money. No changing minds that color all indies as half-witted hobbyists, geeky basement dwellers, ditzy housewives, or bored retirees.

But before I tumble off my soapbox laughing–or foaming at the mouth–let me add this:  Even Psychology Today admits some stereotypes grow like twisted pearls around a kernel of truth. Our kernel is this:  We’ve got too much half-assed writing out there. Not the sole province of indies, I’ll grant you, but we can only clean our own house.

And speaking of houses, you wouldn’t try to build one without tools–well, not unless you’re Popeye the Sailor, who used to drive nails with his fists, and even he couldn’t build a book without the right tools. For the next few weeks, I’m gonna make like Lowe’s, offering tips and tools for your building pleasure. Today’s special, laying a strong foundation.

We start by repeating our mantra for this Saturday:

Words-Have-Power

You bet they do, so don’t get sloppy with them. Would you get sloppy with a band saw–whatever that is? No way. Well, to paraphrase Edward Bulwer-Lytton, words are mightier than band saws. Think about it.

Words are wonderful. Hobgoblin, finagle, lambaste, titular, weensy, claptrap, crackerjack, fluff, knucklehead, quisling, snout, porcine … I mean, you gotta love ’em, right? So choose the right one. If you won’t listen to me on this, listen to Mark Twain.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Choosing the right word is key for, oh, let me count the ways. Nail your nouns, you won’t need to swaddle them in adjectives that bloat your writing. A strong verb will free you from adverbs, which as Stephen King assures us, pave the road to Hell. So forget the bad storm and heavy rain. You’ve got your deluge, your downpour, or, if you’re in Texas, your frog-strangler. Jettison smiled wryly or widely or sweetly in favor of smirked, beamed, leered, grinned, or simpered.

Sad to say, sometimes the perfect noun or verb is nowhere to be found. In that case, you’ve got nowhere to go but adjectives or adverbs, so go for the heavy lifters. And use as few as possible. Sticking with the storm theme: sheeting rain, shrieking wind, soupy fog. Smile fleetingly or darkly or crookedly. And for God’s sake, don’t be afraid of the unusual. Check out this evocative image from J.D. Robb’s Conspiracy In Death:  “the thin and sticky hand of charity.”

See what I mean? And I may I just say, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.”

Make use of all your word tools. Onomatopoeia, for example. You probably know, but in case you don’t, onomatopoeia is “the formation or use of words such as buzz or murmur that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to.” (Thanks for the cut-and-paste, thefreedictionary.com!) You’ll find a nice list here. In case you’re curious, a few personal faves include plunk, jitter, plop, babble (referring to speech, not brooks), eew, grit, and gurgle. I could go on and on, so please … stop me now!

Alliteration is another handy tool, but you want to use this one with caution, unless you’re writing standup comedy, and even then, you don’t want to go all Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Check out these powerhouse examples:

  • “I’ll kill him,” he said, “in all his greatness and glory.” ~Old Man and the Sea
  • “his appearance was something displeasing, something downright detestable” ~Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde
  • “the sibilant sermons of the snake” ~The Gargoyle (nice combo of alliteration and onomatopoeia, yes?)
  • ballbuster ~almost any mainstream mystery novel

Finally, as I’ve often said–much to the dismay of friends and family everywhere–if you’re serious about words, if you want to learn to unleash their power, you need to read poetry. (I heard that groan. Suck it up.) Poets rule when it comes to the efficient, effective use of words. Read and learn:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Frozen-ground-swell, spilling boulders? Oh yeah, words have power ….

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