“Life Itself”

“What was any art but a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself – life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.” Willa Cather

“Life hurrying past us” — isn’t that what we are trying to capture in both our fiction and nonfiction? Among the biggest tools in our arsenal: the word choices we make.

A case in point: Suppose you’re describing a character entering a courtroom. You could simply say, “She walked into the courtroom.” But that’s wasted language — and a wasted opportunity. Instead of using “walked” — why not choose a verb that conveys more to the reader? A few contenders: ambled, bounced, lurched, limped, strolled, sauntered, strutted, sashayed, slithered, stumbled, tiptoed, wandered. You get the idea!

Or, try an exercise that Toby Stein, a seasoned writer and editor gave at a workshop hosted by the Write Group, and complete the sentence, Her handshake was…. Our group came up with a cornucopia of specifics: awkward, crushing, hesitant, weak, weary, sweaty, vigorous, flimsy, cool, deceptive, hostile, distant, solid, stolid, sullen, furtive, anxious. Each word conveys a different but revealing feeling to a reader. Here are more of Toby’s tips I’ve gathered to help us all make our pages sing and dance:

• Adverbs are weak cousins to nouns and verbs. Start out with strong nouns and verbs — and use adverbs sparingly.

• Fiction’s main goal is to create a protagonist that readers can identify with. The more specific your language, the more real your character becomes.

• Write your first draft fast enough to get your whole story out, then shift into revision mode. Revision = focused writing + making choices.

• A novel isn’t a photograph, it’s impressionistic. Each revision gives you the chance to paint a better picture by picking better nouns and verbs. If you’re just adding words without enriching the meaning or the effect, you’re not improving your story, you’re “disimproving” it.

• It’s very important “not to squander specifics:” Numbers, dates, times, and colors all add emotional and descriptive impact. Azure, royal blue, teal — each shade of blue colors your story a little differently, for example.

• 1+1=1/2. If you have two words or phrases, you diminish the impact of both, so choose one. The one that’s simplest is often the best choice. (Wow, this is a great insight — I’m applying it in my YA novel!) 

Great advice from an ace editor and writer. Thanks, Toby. Write on!

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About karinwritesdangerously

I am a writer and this is a motivational blog designed to help both writers and aspiring writers to push to the next level. Key themes are peak performance, passion, overcoming writing roadblocks, juicing up your creativity, and the joys of writing.
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