The Perfect Word

August 9, 2014

image 

The power of one significant word should never be underestimated. As Mark Twain reminds us, the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Replacing a boring word with a better one can change a character. I remember once replacing the word “green” with “emerald” on the first page of a story and having it transform the way I felt about my protagonist. The more romantic way of describing the color of a leaf infused her with a certain longing I had overlooked in previous drafts.

Discovering the perfect word can inspire a scene, a chapter, or even your entire manuscript. I feel like the word “inexplicable” gave my first novel just the right tone.  And finding that perfect word can increase your confidence: This is the kind of writer I am—I will always be able to find the perfect words whenever I need to.

In Your First Novel, the book on craft I co-authored with my literary agent Ann Rittenberg, I talk about using one right word instead of a bulky phrase that means the same thing. “Norman was unable to cope with the demands of his social environment” is better as “Norman was maladjusted.”

Noah Lukeman in his writing manual The First Five Pages talks about the overuse of words like “very” and “really,” red flags that point out bad word choices. Very happy could be ecstatic, really angry could be furious, really very tall could be towering. (Okay, I’m being silly, but you know what I mean.)

By the way, I also recommend trying Lukeman’s exercise in which you take a paragraph or page of your manuscript and remove all adverbs and adjectives and then change your verbs (nouns, too) making more powerful word choices. The rewrite of the following sentence makes his point.

Before: For the first ten minutes, George seemed very reluctant to share what he knew or felt, but suddenly he began to repeat Sally’s story, word for word, exactly the same way she had related it.

After: At first George was reticent, but then repeated Sally’s story verbatim.

But it’s not just about being concise or non-cliché. Great writers can lure us into a story with a perfect word or woo us so that we fall in love with a character or suspend our disbelief with the spell of a well-chosen word.

 I greatly admire the novelist Janet Fitch (White Oleander.) When writing A Certain Slant of Light I studied her unconventional descriptions. She creates metaphors using just the right words–a potential cliché becomes a fresh image that startles the reader by elevating the prose.  Rather than “I saw something that deflated my mood” Fitch writes “I saw something that sucked the winds out of my sails, they flapped and then hung empty in midocean.” I would read Fitch and think, ­midocean, much better than out at sea. I learned a lot from her.

Others I have been inspired by:

 “Vines strangle their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight.” Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. That plants had “kin” sucked me in from that first page.

“I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life.” Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca. How perfect that the character of Frank uses the term creature rather than woman or girl, because the first Mrs. de Winter turns out to be quite a monster.

“The thing tore the throat out of Hugo Baskerville, on which, as it turned its blazing eyes and dripping jaws upon them, the three shrieked with fear.” Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles. How chilling that the beast’s mouth wasn’t merely bloody but dripping.

“During the day, I lived a life of stripperly sloth.” Diablo Cody, Candy Girl. She had, in fact, been a stripper, but I never would have thought of turning that noun into an adjective.

That was fun, but now I must go find the perfect words for my current novel rewrite. Happy choosing to you!

 

 

January & February Give-Away

January 19, 2014

Sorry I have been away so long. I blame the nasty cold that I am fighting.

The winners (yes, more than one winner seeing as how it was the season of giving) of the December Give-Away were Yolanda from Canada, Chantel from South Africa, and Lina from California, USA. Those copies of The Fetch will get mailed out soon. Congrats.

NovelShortcuts

There will be a double Give-Away for January and February, two copies of my writing book, Novel Shortcuts. Send me your name and physical address via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my website before the first day of March and you will be entered.

Happy New Years, everyone!

A blessing for the new year.

December 3, 2013

For over a decade I was the props wrangler for the Portland Christmas Revels, a musical celebration of Christmas and the winter solstice, each year set in a different country and a different period of history. The show always includes a lovely quote by Fra Giovanni, a Renaissance genius and Franciscan friar.

“I salute you. There is nothing I can give you which you have not, but there is much that while I cannot give, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven. No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace. The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. Take joy.”

Portland Revels presents The Christmas Revels 2010, Spanish Treasure.”

Inspired by this blessing, what I want us all to take with us at this change in the year is three-fold.

We should love our writing. Not in a “I’m settling for you” kind of way, but in a “you are my soul-mate” way. We should do whatever we have to do to make our manuscripts worthy of being adored. Every page should be our favorites. I had a friend named Mark, when I went to the Pasadena Alternative School in the mid 70s. Mark was only ten, but he was writing an action novel called Earthquake in the Underground City. He carried it around with him everywhere. And he had a favorite page. He’d read it to you as often as you’d let him. And I had to admit it was a good page–he had a flare for dialogue and made excellent use of suspense. That page was dog-eared, he shared it so much–I suspect he also read it aloud to himself now and then. If we ever feel “just not that into” our stories, we need to do something about it. We could try a writing exercise, like the ones I listed in last  month’s column, or inspire ourselves by re-reading passages from our favorite books before we revise, to put ourselves into that “Mark” zone. We will stir up a new passion for our work because we need to be smitten.

Take love.

It’s the darkest season–it feels like the sun sets too soon and we never get enough writing done, but we shouldn’t be fooled—there are still the same amount of hours every day. Maybe things do slow down a bit in the publishing industry between Thanksgiving and New Years, but it doesn’t mean that anyone has lost or is rejecting our manuscripts. Also, in medieval England, Christmas was the time the King would open the prison cells and forgive the debtors. It’s time for us to let ourselves off the hook for any perceived mistakes. So that last story didn’t turn out as good as hoped. It’s okay. We’re becoming better writers with every page of practice. Maybe we feel guilty that we still haven’t sent in those fifty pages promised to that agent we pitched to at conference. There’s still time to send it. It’s not too late. This is also the perfect time to forgive others (like the editor who passed on your novel or the reviewer who held back praise.) 2013 is plump with possibilities.

Take heart.

If we feel the urge to go in a new direction with our stories, or one of our characters, if the idea makes us happy and at the same time makes us a little nervous, we’re on the right track. We will follow our bliss. And not tiptoe into the shallows, but cannon ball into the deep end. Do something to shake ourselves out of hibernation. The comfort zone is closed for the winter. I see into the future—some of us will find a new narrating voice, one that feels natural, stylish, powerful, and fresh. Some will try a new genre and take off like rockets. Some will be bold and make a phone call or send an unsolicited sample out and end up signing with the perfect agent. Some will dig out and finish that screenplay that got stuffed in a drawer a decade ago, revamp it and enter a contest. And someone will win. Some will write poems and give themselves shivers. Others will go on week-long writers retreats, or participate in the Three Day Novel Writing competition or Nanowrimo. Doors and windows long shut or ignored will fly open. I see it and feel it. It’s a new year and a new world.

Take chances.

And I join Fra Giovanni in greeting you all “with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.”

(adapted from a column in the Willamette Writers newsletter in 2012)

December Give-Away

December 3, 2013

The December Give-Away will be a signed copy of The Fetch, in paperback.

FETCH pb cover

To enter send me your name and physical address via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my website.

Why I Love Halloween, Christmas, and Things that Go Gray in the Night

November 11, 2013

brownies with jack-o-lantern

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been in love with Halloween. Maybe you’d think it was the treats. When I was a kid we didn’t have candy very often at our house, so it was deeply appealing to end up with a full bag of Hershey’s chocolate and pixie stix at the end of an evening of trick-or-treating. Maybe you’d think it was the costumes – I loved dressing up and we had trunks full of old gowns, hats, and props in the cellar. My siblings and cousins, like Alcott’s little women, would garb up and put on plays every time we got together. Maybe you’d think it was the celebration – the last school day before the 31st was always fabulous:  story time with the lights turned down, special songs in minor keys, and on each desk, after last recess, a collection of orange and black cupcakes, cookies, and popcorn balls that had been secreted in by stealthy moms.

But I think mostly I adored the mysterious part of the holiday. My earliest Halloween memory, the October I was three, I remember stepping out our front door after dark, dressed as a princess in a flower girl gown and fake crown, flanked by my sisters who were 9 and 11. It was wonderful. I was entering a world of shadows and secrets. Children darted by on the sidewalks dressed as skeletons and monsters. Underneath I knew they were probably just children like us, but maybe not all of them. People’s yards were thick with cardboard tombstones and pipe cleaner spiders, but when we knocked and the doors opened, faces beamed at us as sweet as those of our own aunts and uncles. There was something delightfully contradictory about that.

That weird, confusing quality appealed to me, like the darkness between streetlights where even the kids in the lightest, easiest to see costumes–white rabbits, brides, and fairies in pale dresses–would fade like ghosts as they moved down the block. I especially loved the gray moment when they were almost gone, but not quite.

winter

For much the same reason I’ve always been smitten with Christmas, as well. Yes, presents and chocolates were involved, but it was going out shopping after dark in the rain, with garlands of lights that spanned the streets transforming it into the Emerald City, that fabulous drug of sweet pine every time you open the front door—how strange is that, to have a tree in your living room? The mystery of a blazing star in the winter sky and a magic baby that even wild animals love. And something else hid behind the manger scene–winter solstice tales older than the sea.

As a kid I always wanted to expand Halloween. My best friend and I imagined a night and day that comes before Halloween, like an All Hallow’s Eve Eve. And I have always loved Christmas Eve even more than Christmas day—it’s the night that holds the wonder. A span of darkness vast enough for a world of chimneys to be explored. Really the whole time from October first to January first seems like one big mystic festival, my favorite part of the year.

I’m just figuring out this peculiar attraction I have to the holidays, but as a writer I use these shadowy areas as inspiration for details and texture in my descriptions of settings, characters, and moments. The gold of jack-o-lanterns grinning in the blackness, the stink of their burning skulls and of rotting leaves in the gutters mixed with the scent of apple cider. The dizzying tracks of flashlights like pixies, leading children over the broken sidewalks as they trick-or-treat.  And also creeping up on the Christmas tree, seeing the Escher-like reflection of my warped face, the presents below and tree branches above, all curved in the convex silver of a hanging ornament.

And as a writer I use the mystery that floats around Halloween and Christmas as inspiration, too. How much is true and how much pretend? That strange mix of light and dark, fear and hope, superstition and ritual. And there are other shadowy areas that inspire me, other unanswered questionsfull moon.

When my nephew was perhaps six, he bonded with a baby bird that I’d rescued from a busy street. He and my sister and niece made the tiny thing a bed and fed it with an eye dropper of water and a tooth pick of bread soaked in egg yoke. The little bird grew and learned to fly. At first it would flit from Nicky’s shoulder around the room and later he’d stand in the back yard and it would swoop from his hand all around the yard and then back to its boy. Then it would watch at a distance, from the far end of the yard, perched on the hedge. We saw the bird every day for perhaps a week. And then one day he never came back. That last time that little creature sat on the hedge and looked at our yard is frozen in my mind. He remembered us then. Maybe he even recalled the box he slept in or the warm salty sweetness of a little boy’s palm.  Did he wait for a moment to see if Nick would come out and raise his hand? By then the bird had already spent many an hour being wild and nameless. In his last moment of being tame, what did he think?

It’s like the way babies still seem able to see angels. They live in a blessed grayness that we never get to hear about since they are too young to describe their visitors. When we are first falling asleep at night and when we are first waking up in the morning, those are shadowy areas, too. We whisper wisdoms in our sleep that sound like nonsense once our ears become alert and play that losing game of telephone with the other side.  But deep waters run through these foggy areas. I try my best to pan for writing gold in these kinds of streams. I’ve often used parts of my dreams in the pages of my novels. And I know that something about that rescued bird’s last glimpse of our yard will end up in one of my stories someday.

And how I love that grayness when you are sensing a new idea for a story forming in your head, like Moby Dick deep enough to be hidden, just close enough to the surface of the water to appear as a ghostly glow.

Pardon my ramblings. And Happy Thanksgiving! Revel in the shadows between streetlights, write down the nonsense you hear when you are just waking from a dream, and tonight as you fall asleep, try and remember the angels you saw when you were two in that last moment before you were tame.

(reprinted, with slight changes, from a 2012 column in the Willamette Writers newsletter which drew on material from a 2011 post on this blog)

November Give Away

November 2, 2013

In honor of Nanowrimo, the Give Away for November is a signed copy of Your First Novel.  Send your physical address and name to me via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link of my website.

YourFirstNovel

And to all of you starting a 30 day journey to the promised land of 50K words, bless your hearts. Great good luck to you!

Come to a haunted tea party!

October 22, 2013

I will be hosting a supernatural tea party at the Barnes & Noble in Clackamas (Oregon) at 7;00 p.m. on Tuesday, October 29, 2013.

haunted mansion dining room

Free scones, cookies, and tea. Storyteller Julie Strozyk will be sharing a spooky tale. Actor & magician Don Stewart Burns will be doing an eerie trick or two. And Fantasy writer Miriam Forster (City of a Thousand Dolls) and I will be reading creepy bits from our novels. We will exchange “true” ghost stories and Halloweeny book recommendations so DO PLEASE COME! It should be frighteningly fabulous!

Ten Writing Books That Have Helped Me

October 13, 2013

(At the risk of repeating myself, this is reprinted from a Willamette Writers newsletter column I wrote in fall 2012.)used books

 

There are so many great books on writing out there that I haven’t read yet, and many that I’ve read and enjoyed but didn’t have time to mention below, but here are a few that have made a difference in my writing life.

On craft:

“To write a breakout novel is to run free from the pack . . . to say “no” to merely being good enough to be published.” –Writing the Breakout Novel  (Donald Maass) This book startled me, at first made me nervous, then fired me up. The author’s advice on heightening tension to create a fast-paced story was the clearest I’d ever heard.  He taught me that for my novel to touch and thrill readers, and to render them unable to forget my story, I needed to create characters (especially my protagonists) with vivid desires and wounds and quirks. My characters need to be heartbreaking, heroic, and charming. And they must be believable as well as larger than life. A proverbial light bulb snapped on in my brain.  (There’s also a workbook for this one that I found helpful to use on a couple of projects.)

“This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions.” –Stein on Writing (Sol Stein) This one fascinated me—the author talks about advice (increasing tension, establishing credibility, composing dialogue) that lots of other writing teachers discuss, but Stein makes these topics fresh. He uses an acting exercise to illustrate the heightening of drama in a two person scene. He calls his method for fast revision “Triage.” And he gives some effective (often amusing) advice about the art of the love scene. This book is packed with wisdom you forgot you already knew. Sometimes you need someone to give you a little shake and wake you up.

“When a character believably shifts to a higher level of consciousness, energy is released. A surge of emotion is generated in the audience.” The Writers Guide to Writing Your Screenplay (Cynthia Whitcomb) This writing manual works not just for screenwriters but for novelists, playwrights, poets, all of us.  The sections on Set Ups and Pay Offs and on Character Evolution are particularly great. I know, she’s my sister, but that’s not why I love this book. I love it because it works and it’s written in an endearing and accessible voice—feels like having a long lunch with a brilliant friend who talks fast which is awesome because you listen fast!

“The quickest and easiest way to reject a manuscript is to look for the overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs.” –The First Five Pages  (Noah Lukeman) Here’s a book I found useful in unexpected ways. The title implies it’s all about refining the first 1000 words or so of your manuscript, but it is the seemingly simplistic advice on cutting and replacing words that worked the best for me on any page of my novel. In one of Lukeman’s exercises he has you remove all the adverbs and adjectives on one page of your manuscript, list them, cross out the cliché ones, change the strongest ones to less expected choices, put these new ones back in and then reread the new version of the page. Then do the same with nouns—list them and find replacements that are more unusual. Once, while teaching a workshop for the Oregon Writers Colony, I had each student take a paragraph or page of his/her manuscript and change every noun, verb, adverb, and adjective. One woman was working on a first-person story and when she read back the original followed by the rewritten version, people in the room actually gasped. The narrator’s voice came to life in a startling way. Seriously, even if you end up keeping just one improved sentence on the page, I think you’ll find Lukeman’s exercises are worth it.

“It’s not a question of gimmicks to personalize the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.” – On Writing Well  (William Zinsser) Here is some very effective instruction on refining descriptions (of settings and characters) and on narrowing your story’s scope (why it’s better to tell a story by focusing on one year, or even one summer, instead of years of plot, for example.) One of my favorite chapters is about crafting a memoir, but it’s applicable to all writers.

 

Inspiration:

“Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.”  –Bird By Bird  (Anne Lamott) There is some great advice on craft in this book (looking at a character through a one inch frame, for instance) but for me it was all about inspiration. Lamott’s writing is all heart—her pages are filled with quirky passages that make you want to write and make you proud to be in her authors’ club.

“You make a path boldly and follow it fearfully . . . the path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over. I hope birds ate the crumbs.”–The Writing Life (Annie Dillard) There are a couple of life experiences that the author relates in this book, metaphors for understanding and overcoming writing obstacles, that still resonate with me almost a decade later. The wood chopping scene, when she realizes how to get farther by aiming at the block instead of the piece of wood, struck home.

“My earliest memory is of imagining I was someone else—imagining that I was, in fact, the Ringling Brothers Circus Strongman.” –On Writing (Stephen King) It was fascinating not only to hear how King went from broke to bestselling author, but how certain life experiences steered him toward his genre: a recurring ear infection, dropping a bee-infested cinder block on his foot, observing an awkward girl at school who later became the model for Carrie. And the book also includes plenty of down-to-earth advice. I especially loved the section about a mentor advising him to cut out half the words on each page.

 

On career strategy:

“Your agent’s job is to hold on to your belief in your work so he can get you the most favorable possible contracts and relationships with publishers.” –Your First Novel (Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb) Ok, I know, this is my own book, but hearing about the business side of things from my agent’s (and co-author’s) half of the book (how Ann gets an editor interested in your novel, her most common reason for rejecting a project, advice on writing a great query letter) is fascinating and her writing style is charming. The section on how a book auction works is thrilling.

“You will probably work with your agent for a long time. You owe it to yourself to choose one you like and enjoy, one who lets you feel free.” –The Career Novelist  (also Donald Maass) Again Mr. Maass taught me things I didn’t realize I needed to know but was grateful to learn. Like what kinds of agents there are out there so I’d know how to focus my search. And when to give up one’s day job. Wonderfully straight forward and easy to grasp.

October Give-Away

October 13, 2013

The winner of the September Give-Away was Alexandria of Greenfield, MA . The October Give-Away is a signed (softcover) copy of The Fetch and, in an act of shameful self-promotion, here is a bit of praise for this novel:

TF papberback cover

The Fetch is one of those rare books that took me completely by surprise. An inspired combination of history, religion and the supernatural . . . pushes at the boundaries of teen literature, nudging the field in a startling new direction . . . gorgeous descriptions of the afterlife are comforting and original, and my heart lifted as almost never before when I read the final few pages . . . this strange bird of a novel is quite a start to the 2009 year in YA lit. – Reading Rants

The Book You Write and the Book They Read

September 5, 2013

During one of my monthly Supernatural Tea Parties, my sister brought up the possibility that my novel, A Certain Slant of Light, might be read by a ghost looking over the shoulder of a living reader—perhaps that ghost might more easily find her way to the Hereafter by reading my dead protagonist’s journey to Heaven.  Maybe that human reader, who never knew a ghost was reading over his shoulder, would also recall my story someday on his deathbed and have a smoother passage to the other side. The idea seemed strange, almost funny, but I was so intrigued by the concept that in the companion novel to ACSOL, Under the Light, I had my ghost character, Helen, talk about how she wished the novels she’d read so voraciously in her youth  had taught her what to do when faced with death.

reading over shoulder

“No one teaches us how to die. No mother sits her daughter down beside her at the quilting frame and gives her this knowledge. No boy is given these facts by a thoughtful father while mending fences. Perhaps if the stories I read and reread all my life spoke more of the natural act of death I would have had an easier passage. What if the novels I loved, Daniel Deronda, Mansfield Park, Lord Jim, described entering the afterlife as readily as they described unfortunate engagements, unrequited love, and suspenseful misunderstandings? ”

The  passage was cut for the sake of pace, and I’ll probably never know if a spirit is ever helped along by my writing, but it got me thinking about the mystery of what happens to a novel once it leaves the page and goes into the minds of the readers.

When you write a novel it changes less from first draft to final product than a screenplay, a teleplay or a stage play does since they get filtered through directors, actors, sometimes cinematographers and editors. As novelists we think that (except for the refinements we make with the help of our editors) what you see on the page is what you get. But the real final versions are infinite because your book becomes part of each of your readers, filtered through each of his or her unique minds.

Fans will tell you that they loved exactly what you loved about your story. The trials that your hero overcame helped them deal with similar troubles of their own. Or your book gave them the courage to face a new challenge. But sometimes your fans will thank you for gifts you hadn’t intended to give them.  Maybe they’ll relate to a character who is gay that you did not write as gay. Maybe they’ll thank you for writing such a powerful mother-daughter story when you thought those two characters were estranged. For example, a reviewer of my second novel, The Fetch, said that I had borrowed heavily from Pilgrim’s Progress, a book I’ve never read. Significance is in the eye of the beholder.

And that’s okay. People will also take things the wrong way and be offended. In A Certain Slant of Light one of my characters, Jenny, grows up in a conservative Christian family that is oppressive. I did not intend to imply that all Christian families are oppressive. Not even all conservative ones. But putting Jenny and the spirit of Helen in a dysfunctional Christian household worked for me as a storytelling element. I got about four or five “anti-fan” emails from folks who were angry at that choice. Which is okay. In my opinion, if 5% or less of your fan mail is negative, that’s healthy.

What people take away from your work will be a surprise. There are writers I love that I want to rewrite sometimes. For example, when I read Dr. Seuss books to my son, there are a couple of things I edit. In Scrambled Eggs Super I change the word “uncles” and the word “fellows” to “aunties” and “girlies” because males do not lay eggs. When Binny (only three and a half at the moment) gets old enough to read that book himself he can ask me why I read it “wrong” and I’ll be glad to explain. Also, in If I Ran the Zoo I change the couplet “I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” to “I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Torgeous with helpers who all wear their eyes simply gorgeous” because I find the original version racist.

And yet I love Dr. Seuss books. The first book I ever read all the way through by myself was One Fish Two Fish and Binny has made me read him If I Ran the Circus and The Cat in the Hat more times than I care to count. Maybe Dr. Seuss would be surprised at the bits of his writing I paraphrased, but Dr. S did his job. He wrote great stories. Bless his heart for making my kid (and millions of other kids) happy.

And that’s all you have to worry about. Write the stories that you want to write. Revel in what greatness your fans find and let the others complain about what they bring to the stories themselves. It’s all just part of the writer & reader dance.

(first published in the Willamette Writers newsletter)


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