Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Choosing the (Im)Perfect Word

Recently, I was reading a work by a much-loved author and I came across the sentence, "He smelt the smoke in the autumn air."


Okay, so technically, it's a perfectly acceptable word in the context of the sentence. But when I hear (or read) smelt, I automatically think of the fish. Or the ore. "Smelt" as a past tense of "smell" is the last option my brain conjures up. This jolts me out of the story as I have to ask, What's wrong with "smelled"? 

Someone else I know can't read that a character "snickered" without thinking about horses. Laugh, chuckle, chortle, guffaw, if they must, but "snicker" just doesn't work for her.

Another reader asked me if "hared" was a real word (as in, "He hared off in pursuit of the child.") For the record, yes, it's a real word. It means to run like a hare.

A while back, I read a book that I didn't care for. One of the biggest problems for me was that the protagonist kept calling the paparazzi, "paps" and every time I read it, I felt like I should be making my annual OB/GYN appointment.

As writers, we're often torn between keeping our prose simple and coming up with that perfect word or description that will define an action or characteristic without the heavy use of adjectives and adverbs. It's a fine line we dance upon. And sometimes we stumble. When we stumble, our readers also stumble.

The thing is, we don't always know. I mean "smelt" went past the author and her editor, so who am I to say she should have gone with "smelled" instead? Maybe where they live, smelt has nothing to do with fish or ore.

That one reader who has trouble with "snickered" is probably in the minority. Right? You tell me if that particular term bothers you. I have to admit since I heard her argument, I, too, now think of horses when I see the word. <shrug!> The power of suggestion...

"Hared" is a rare word choice, but I see "rabbited" a lot and it's basically the same definition. Whereas "hared" can be confused with hard or hated by a reader, "rabbited" is pretty straight-forward.

Paps? That one's just unforgivable in my book.

What to do?

Well, editors have an acronym for this: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Don't use "queried" when "asked" will do.
If you're going to use a new or unique word, make sure it can't be confused with a totally different, more common term that has a similar or the same spelling. 
Rare is rarely better than common.

Your story is what makes your book unique, not how many words you look up in your thesaurus.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Suffering from Writer's Block?

Every once in a while, we all go through that period where the words don't come easily. Some writers will tell you they never suffer from writer's block and I think that's a great attitude. But work and life's little mishaps *do* get in the way of a writer's creative spark. Don't panic. This, too, shall pass. But you can help yourself with a few tips.

Music. Ever hear a song on the radio and you instantly click on a scene from a movie? For instance, every time I hear "Jump" by the Pointer Sisters, I immediately see (and sometimes do) Hugh Grant's dance from Love, Actually. Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" brings back memories of the football players doing the Electric Slide in a holding cell in The Replacements. And "Simply Irresistible" by Robert Palmer will always remind me of Queen Latifah's fight in the ladies room in Bringing Down the House. Soundtracks inspire, incite, and linger with us long after the movie is over. The same can be said about what you want when you're writing. So create a soundtrack for your book! Afraid you'll become distracted and sing along? Go for instrumentals! Check out Broadway and movie soundtracks at your library and choose music that will set the proper mood for each aspect of your story (introduction, conflict, crisis, climax, love scene, murder scene, etc.).

Exercise. Take a walk, go for a bike ride, punch a bag, do ab crunches. Get some endorphins flowing. Step away from the computer for a while. Your work will benefit from the break (and so will your body!)

Read. Re-read your WIP. Sometimes you lose the thread, but with a quick refresh of what you've written before, you can recapture what you've missed. Read another author's work. Leaf through magazines. 

Play. I love crossword puzzles and word games like Scrabble and Balderdash that will ignite a new idea. And you can play online so you don't have to wait for partners.

Got a tip to respark your dormant creativity? Share it here!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Taking on the Contest Circuit?

I've been a contest judge for more than a decade. I could wallpaper my living room with the thank you cards I've received from entrants who've valued my input. One author wrote, "I was about to give up writing until I received your judge's comments. You made me believe in myself and my story." Another told me, "Thanks to your suggestions, I made a few changes and I'm thrilled to tell you that my story won!"

Before you start dropping money on contests in the hopes of getting your work in front of your dream agent or editor, don't you want to make sure your manuscript has a chance to final? Take advantage of my Introductory Special and have your work reviewed for $1.00 per page to strengthen your story and increase your odds!