On October 14, 2011, maybeawriter wrote, I have a problem with my stories. I like the ideas but the words never seem right. Please help!
I asked for clarification, and maybeawriter added, Well, it seems like they don't flow right or seems like there is another word that might fit in better, but I can't really think of any, like there could be a better word for just walking, or the feel of the water.
Word choice influences everything, but it especially affects voice, tone, and mood. I recently read M. T. Anderson’s young adult novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which astonished me in the best possible way. Here’s a sentence early in the book: And so the answer to my perplexities, which must appear in all its clarity to those who look from above, was finally clear to me: that I too was the subject of a zoological experiment. Even earlier Mr. Anderson describes the house where Octavian lives as "gaunt," such an imaginative and evocative adjective. The word choices perfectly represent my idea of 18th century expression. And, despite the elaborate sentences, Mr. Anderson tells a riveting story. When things get tough, Octavian becomes Observant. The term exactly expresses the character’s experience, and it breaks the reader’s heart, my heart anyway.
As I read I kept wishing I’d written the book. I couldn’t. I can write only what I can write although I can try to expand my style and my sentences. Reading a lot helps with that. While I was reading Octavian Nothing, I had to hold back from letting his sorts of sentences infiltrate my writing where they didn’t belong. The voices of other writers get inside us. When it’s no longer so fresh, in this case probably a few months from now, Mr. Anderson’s work will influence me subtly, appropriately.
Writing and reading poetry help me, too. I’m much more aware of consonant and vowel sounds than I used to be. In the sentence before this one, for example, I find the m’s in I’m much more and the ow’s in vowel sounds pleasing. I notice them as I write, and sometimes I shorten the distance between words to bring like sounds closer together. Other times I deliberately go against the harmony. You can do this without writing or reading poetry (although I’m a big fan of doing both). Here’s a prompt: Pick a paragraph (notice the alliteration; I could have written choose a paragraph) in a story you’re working on. Underline any alliteration and any repeat vowel sounds. I suspect you’ll find at least a few, because English is full of similar sounds. Look for substitutions you can make to increase the effect. Try them out. Does the paragraph read better?
Now go the other way. Substitute to move away from the similarities. Read the paragraph out loud and decide which you prefer and which goes more with the feeling of your story. There’s no right answer. The purpose is just to become more alert to sound and its subtle effects.
Maybeawriter, words are a pale reflection of experience. We can never precisely convey the feeling of water; not even Shakespeare could have. If we were writing for the man on the moon who has never felt rain, we couldn’t represent clearly enough the sensation of wetness. If he flew his spaceship into an ocean and swam out, then he might say, I get it now. Before I was just guessing. This suggests another prompt: Describe water for the man in the moon. You won’t succeed, but create a longing in him with your description, so that the distance between him and the nearest cloud becomes unbearable.
You can then go ahead and write a story about his visit to earth.
Some friends and I were just discussing the impossibility of describing the color red to someone blind from birth. We can talk about warm colors and cool colors and heat and power, blood, and even anger. We can describe the color wheel. A blind person will understand heat and blood and emotions and the idea of a color wheel, but he won’t experience red, I don’t think. In Fairest, I invented the color htun, and I describe it, but I’ve never seen it - wish I could. But I can come closer to picturing it than a blind person could because I already see colors.
What tools do we have to show our readers what they and the writer haven’t experienced? Writers of fantasy and sci fi and historical fiction voyage to places we’ve never been and never will go, and the glory in the writing is in creating something utterly new. We do it by moving from what we have experienced to what we haven’t. Suppose we’re describing charged mimo particles, which have the power to suck seeds out of the ground. In nature, the nature of this world, they appear only in huge colonies; you won’t encounter a single mimo on its own except in the laboratory. A colony will slide slowly down a slope, like fudge sauce over ice cream, all the while sparkling like a billion brown fireflies. If they’re important to your story, you can go further and tell the reader that Sal had a brush with them once. She was snoozing in a meadow on the west side of Chotig Mountain when a colony oozed out of an abandoned mine shaft and slithered down. She woke up when her pinky finger started tingling. Luckily she jumped to the right, out of its path. Her pinky was gone completely, leaving only a tiny blue scar, and that meadow will never bloom again. If you want more you can introduce a science teacher at Sal’s high school delivering a lecture about mimos.
None of us has encountered mimos, but we have seen dirt fields, scars, fireflies, and hot fudge descending on ice cream, and we know how tingling feels. Even if you’re home schooled, you’ve probably been lectured to, if only on television. We work toward the unknown from the familiar.
But when it comes to the familiar, like water, a perfectly acceptable choice is to zip by it quickly. Everybody knows the sensation of water, so it’s fine to say, the water was icy. But suppose this is a moment of heightened experience. Sal has been lost in the desert. She’s just reached an oasis and is drinking her first water in thirty-six hours. Or she’s covered in worm slime and is finally taking a shower. You want to describe either of these. Well, you might go for metaphor and call the water a surprise party, rebirth, birdsong. I’m choosing images that are somehow water-like. Water, even though it’s familiar, is often pleasantly shocking, like a surprise party. Rebirth is a common idea when it comes to water, which is essential for life. And birdsong is a fluid sound. I wouldn’t use a metaphor like The water was a shoe because it’s hard to imagine anything less like water than a shoe.
Going in a more practical direction, the best boon for word choice is a thesaurus. I often use www.thesaurus.com to take me beyond the words I usually use. Sometimes the synonyms I see persuade me to rephrase my whole sentence more pleasingly.
Now, on the blog I may make everything sound easy, and then, when we start writing, we struggle. So I’ll end with a sort-of quote, sort of because I don’t know where it comes from, but not from me, because I’m rarely so delightfully loose. The not-quite-a-quote goes something like, When my writing isn’t up to my standards, I lower my standards. Excellent advice if we’re going to slog all the way to the end.
Prompts are scattered through the post, but here’s one more: Invent a substance and incorporate it into a scene, using a new main character or a character in a story you’re working on.
Have fun, and save what you write!