“Watch your language,” my mom would say in one of my teen angst moments.
My sixteen-year-old self replied, “Yes, ma’am.”
I waited for her to turn her back, and I muttered a smart mouth comment. The words can hurt, one word is all it takes, or the watch your words lectures entered my ears a many times. They did not sink for a long time. I thought about the phrase watch your words.
It is hard to watch a word unless you’re reading something. The power 0f one word or a phrase expands beyond the realm of teenagers who think they know everything. The idea of it knocks on the door of a writer. It waits for you to answer the door, shake its hand, and invite it onto your page. A word, any word, waits for the writer to invite it. It takes half of a second for a special guest to appear on a computer screen.
The question a writer asks his or herself is: Do I have the right word? Does it benefit the scene? The character? The thought process goes on and on to the point the mind feels numb and wants to push everything away. The creativity drains itself like the fat from beef in the frying pan. It leads to a hard knuckle punch in the writer’s own head, which I wrote about in my last blog.
Words are everywhere. Road signs jump out at us. Words are in books, on iPads, and in HTML script. Fashion models, designers, and tech-wizards all want something from words. They want to know words’ secrets. Excellent written work is in style forever. That is the power a writer has: to take a word and mold it.
I Cannot Think of a Good Description so I Turn to the –lys
In 2007, I took a class at the University of Kent at Canterbury called Reading and Writing Contemporary Fiction, taught by British author Scarlett Thomas. One day I went to my module—or class. Scarlett had a guest speaker. He placed a scene from a book on a projector screen. In editing the work, he pointed out how the writer had chosen to use many adverbs ending with
My aunt used to bring me printing paper from her office. She tore off the sides—which if you worked or attended college in the early nineteen-nineties, you know what I mean—and stapled a booklet for me. I drew pictures of my stories. As soon as I learned how to write, I put words together like puzzles. Throughout my teen years and early college, I mostly wrote poetry. I came up with the idea for my novel, Sons of the Edisto, in June 2006. I started the research and composition. I had not realized that there was a certain science to writing fiction.
I learned more about show don’t tell listening to the guest speaker in Scarlett’s class.
Adverbs and adjectives alone are not enough to describe a character, his or her situation, or a scene. If anyone looks at alternate word for adjective, he or she will see accessory. In law, a person who drives a robber to the bank is an accessory to the crime. The person does not want police to catch him or her. If the robber is caught, he or she might give authorities the name of the accessory.
In other words, there is no hiding the –ly or a bad adjective
in front or after the noun. The noun will reveal it to readers and editors. A perfect example of an author, whose historical work I respect, is Judith Pella. I read her book Written in the Wind about three American sisters, all of whom are faced with the challenges of family and World War II. The book represents the first of four books. Pella does many things wonderful as an author, especially in her description of Russia. A repetition reoccurs like a sour note on a piano that does not fit the song. The listener hears it. The reader catches the adverbs. Passionately is a favorite word of Pella’s when she describes a kiss of any two romantic characters in the book.
Now I’m not an expert. Literary minds throughout the world have read more books than me, gone to Ivy leagues schools, and know the science of fiction and its market. I’m one of its pupils. In the years since my lessons with Scarlett Thomas, I understand more about the –ly dilemma. We, as writers and readers of the twenty-first century, live in a visual world. We must write with vision and heart.
When I Think of the Word(s)
In a general sense, many writers I’ve met with feel pressure the moment they start researching the best tips on writing a story, poem, or book. Pressure builds up, and a writer is at a loss for words. The pressure might boil down to the right word for a sentence. Joshilyn Jackson said at a conference I attended in 2010 that she wrote draft after draft of the Chapter One for gods in Alabama.
Jackson told the audience she thought her first drafts of chapters were not good. She molded one sentence out of simple words most all readers know, and created my favorite first sentence:
“There are Gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.”
She pulls the reader in and demands attention with so little.
As a writer contemplates what words to place in a sentence, it should not be a game of Scrabble. I find the blank page always wins. I am guilty of over thinking. The moment my thoughts start to circle about what I’ve researched on how make a book great, I know I’m not going to accomplish much with any word I write.
The power of a first draft and its words is that it is not a manufactured item. You are not about to ship it overseas for someone else to build and then sell it back in the United States. It is all yours. Let words spill from the heart, mind, and gut. Or just talk to the gods in Alabama.