Tag Archives: Inspiration for Authors

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 ….

When Molly Gets Her Walkin’ Ears On … And Why That Matters to Me As a Writer

When Molly gets her walkin’ ears on, they sweep back.  Not flat and hard like angry dog ears, or limp and wimpy like sad/scared dog ears.  More like the wings on an F-14.  I get a kick out of it, every time.  I mean, Molly’s ears are hardly the stuff of wind resistance—they look about one size too small for even her little head.  But soon as she’s on the leash, her tail revs up and back go the ears.

Shifting into Drive, I guess.

She’s a power-walker, is my Molly.  No sniffing hydrants or nosing around light poles for this gal.  Twenty-one pounds of got-places-to-go-and-people-to-meet, she trots lightly beside me, head on a swivel, undersized aerodynamically positioned ears bouncing in time with her spritely gait:  doink, doink, doink.  She clocks in at an effortless 2.6 mph on the pedometer, and she’s having the time of her life.

That makes two of us.   Especially when ladies stop to fuss over her, and the college student in the silver pickup pulls up to the stop sign, lowers his window, and says, “That is a really cute dog.”

I beam like proud mama.  Molly wags furiously, yearning to get him in a lip lock.  Of course, Molly yearns to get everybody in a lip lock.  She is, after all, a major people person … uh, pup.

We still have some things to learn, a few minor kinks to iron out.

  1. Joggers don’t generally want their legs licked mid-stride.  It makes them trip and get grumpy, even at someone as adorable as you, Molly.  This is why we’re learning to sit as they approach.  I know it just about kills you to let them pass unslurped, but such is life.
  2. Pausing for a silent salute to the bunny who didn’t quite make it across Victoria Avenue is okay.  An up-close-and-personal sniff (or, God forbid, lap) at the corpse is not.
  3. Beetles are not pick-me-up snacks strewn along your path by a benevolent Deity.
  4. Nix on belly-flopping on the grass when we get home, simply because you’re not ready to call it quits.  You grin up at me smugly, obviously intending to play immovable object until you get your way, but let’s face it:  You only weigh twenty-one pounds, and you’re a sucker for treats. We’re not talking rocket science here.

So, that’s Molly.  And, yes, I’m besotted.  But I didn’t create this blog as a platform to prattle exclusively (and, perhaps, endlessly) about my newly adopted dog, wondrous though she may be.  I created it to prattle about writing.

Not seeing the connection, are you.  I didn’t either, until this morning.

But there we were, tripping lightly down the sidewalk under a steel-gray sky when I realized I was writing.  In my head.  Watching Molly’s bouncy step and bobbing ear-lets, watching her get all squiggly and excited at the prospect of planting drive-by slobber on the well-muscled calves of the lady jogging toward us, I found myself searching for the best way to describe it all.  Experiencing the walk on two levels, both as Molly’s pal and as the observer who couldn’t wait to get her fingers on the keyboard, so she could try to bring Molly’s ears and the way she eyed the poor dead rabbit and the fun we were having together alive for somebody else.

So that’s the connection.  Molly makes me want to write.  Not only about her, but about the way people and animals move.  The humidity that rolls sweat down my back.  The way the sky looks when it’s shrouded in gray.

A while back, I quoted Rilke, who said, ““If your everyday life seems poor, do not indict it; indict yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to summon its riches; for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”

At the end of that post, I reckoned I needed to learn to come alive to the world around me.

And this morning, for 2.23 miles, I think I did.

Thanks, Moll.