Word Ripples

If you strip all the articles, pronouns, conjunctions, forms of to be, and to say from your story, you’re still left with a sizable number of words. The remaining nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are ultimately selected by you. When you’re writing your first draft you’re probably on autopilot and the words come naturally. But when you go back to revise, you may decide that some of your choices were weak. Maybe another word would bring your scene to life more vividly. So how do you go about choosing that ‘new improved’ word?

Some alternative words will pop into your head, or you might browse a thesaurus looking for choices. A thesaurus can give a jump start to your brain, but it can be dangerous to base a decision on. Although the words grouped in the thesaurus are similar in meaning, they’re by no means equal. Like colors, words come in many shades. They have nuances and subtle differences. An artist can’t use red as a substitute for pink, and a writer must be just as discriminating in choosing his words.

Most words have associations that I call ‘baggage.’ These associations can create ‘ripples’ that spread through your story. If you chose well these ‘ripples’ can be used to your advantage. They can foreshadow events and add layers of depth. Let’s look at an example everyone will be familiar with. The word ‘gay’ originally meant happy or light-hearted. It has since come to refer to homosexuals. The association is so strong that it’s almost impossible to use the word for its original meaning. Using it will undoubtedly cause a ripple in the reader’s mind. Depending on the topic of your story, you may or may not find this ripple useful.

Recently I wrote: “She threaded her way through the crowded market.” I could have used wandered or walked, but the conflict of the story involved string. By using threaded, I sent a ripple foreshadowing and connecting to string. Similarly in another story I wrote: “All except one melted into the meadow.” I could have used disappeared or blended, but I chose melted. As the story develops snow becomes an important part and by using melted I set it up. Many of these clues or ripples won’t be noticed consciously by the reader, but they exist, building connections and layers.

So the next time you are looking for the right word, try this exercise. Make a ‘ripple chart.’ Use free association and see what ideas the words set off in your mind. Of course some associations are cultural or generational and won’t have the same effect on all readers. But if you stick to common associations most people will share them. Drop the right pebbles into your pond and the word ripples will strengthen your stories.

As you can see from these two ripple charts, I associate jog with fitness and trot with horses. I would keep that in mind if I was writing a sentence and didn’t want to use the more generic verb run.

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Voice: The Music of Your Muse

There is music in our words. Or should I say, there should be music in our words. Poets know this. In poems every word counts, each one working on several different levels. They must not only convey the right meaning, but also have the right number of syllables, the right stresses, the right rhymes. Ultimately they must have–the right sound.

 

Picture book writers also know the value of each word. With such a tight word count, every one is carefully chosen. Like a poem, a picture book is meant to be heard. The best picture books can be read over and over, their words, a song shared by both the reader and the listener.

 

But what of longer works, novels are seldom read aloud, do their words have music? The answer is, if they are truly well written, they do. Even though a novelist can’t consciously agonize over every one of the thousands of words in his work, the music must be there. It lies in that mystical, indefinable quality called voice.

 

Writers quest after voice like knights searching for the Holy Grail. What is it? How do we get it? If we think about it, it becomes less mysterious. Why is it called voice? Voice implies sound, but written words are read not heard. That is where we make a mistake. Words always have sound, whether read aloud or heard within the mind of the reader. Realizing this, it becomes clear what voice is. Voice is nothing more or less than the author’s choice of words and the sounds and rhythms created by those choices, over and above the meanings of the words. It is the author singing his song, the music of his words.

 

That is why voice cannot be taught. It is something developed with time and practice. Novelists choose each and every word just as surely as poets do. But because of the large number of words, we do it subconsciously. We use the poetic techniques of assonance and alliteration. We chose words with the right stresses and syllables. We vary the length of our sentences. We use harsh consonants or long smooth vowels. We learn, after years of writing, to hear the song in our heads, our words have music, and we find our voice.  

 

     

   

 

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Wading in the Shallows

One of the most common suggestions received during conference critiques is to change the point where our stories start. Often we’re told to drop the first few paragraphs, pages, or even the first chapter and start from there. It seems odd that so many of us begin our tales too early and that even as we grow as writers we continue to do so.

 

But perhaps it’s a natural process that leads writers to begin before the beginning. We need to get our feet wet. When I go swimming, I don’t dive right into the pool. I wade in slowly, letting my body adjust to the water temperature. First my feet, then my legs, the water rises and after a last shiver I plunge in.

 

Writing the first draft of a story is a similar process. The original first paragraphs, pages, or chapters that we later discard let us get our bearings. We get acclimatized to new settings. We splash around in the shallows learning about our characters. Gradually we adjust to the water temperature and swim out to the depths.

 

We shouldn’t let finding the perfect beginning leave us frozen at the water’s edge afraid to swim. We shouldn’t force ourselves to plunge into the cold, deep waters before we’re ready or we might drown in the middle. Wading out and splashing in the shallows until we find the current of the story is natural and necessary.

 

By accepting this part of the creative process, we allow ourselves the freedom to begin. We lose the anxiety about starting at the right place. Even after the original pages are ruthlessly cut during revision, we have learned from the opening splashes. Their ripples spread out through the story. The confidence and knowledge we gained from them remains in the strong smooth strokes of our finished works.

 

 

  

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The Great Call of China

Finally it’s the Red letter day!
The release of The Great Call of China by  Cynthea Liu!
 
The red letter for today is a big RED C! Now I know normally a big red C on anything is not news for celebration, but today is different. Today C is the letter!
C for Cynthea!
C for China!
C for Cece!
And C for Celebrate!
Oh and Snoop I didn’t forget you, C is for Carrots!
Now if you haven’t already done it,
get over to Cynthea’s Cyber-release Celebration!
 
 
Congratulations! Cynthea
(Running off now to buy Copies.)
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Piano-forte, soft-loud

 

Years ago when I took piano lessons I learned the original name for the instrument, piano-forte or soft-loud. It was given that name because of its dynamic range. Unlike the harpsichord, notes could be played louder or softer by striking the keys harder or softer. This feature gave the piano versatility. A song could whisper one moment and scream the next. A talented pianist could use the full range of the instrument to reach his listeners. 

 

Recently I was considering how writers portray emotions in our writing and the piano-forte came to mind. Do emotions have sound? What emotions are loud? What emotions are soft?

 

The first one that came to mind was anger. ANGER seemed like a loud emotion. Yelling, screaming, stomping, slamming. But then I thought of the icy cold anger when two people stop talking to each other, the anger that seethes beneath the surface, deadly quiet. It seemed that anger was not to be pigeon-holed as loud after all.

 

What of the other emotions? I realized they all had loud and quiet faces. Sadness ranged from loud wails through choked sobs to silent tears. Happiness held peals of laughter and screams of delight as well as soft glows and quiet smiles. People expressed fear in shrieking screams or wordless stares of frozen terror.

 

All the emotions hold a full range of dynamics, soft-loud, piano-forte. As writers we must keep this in mind. We must learn, as I had with the piano, when to play loud and when to play soft so that readers can hear the music of our words.     

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