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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Choosing the Right Words (ConCarolinas 2013 Writing Panel Notes)

Choosing the Right Words: A Magical Words Panel
David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson, Faith Hunter, Misty Massey

The Magical Words Team – Created, a group blog that discusses writing and publishing issues for fantasy authors, with a focus on traditional publishing. (Come check them out! It's a great community.)

Choosing the right words: You see a lot of times people writing, and you think, really, you used that word? You don’t have to choose the right word the first time Important that you get it right when you finally turn it in. Important to paint an accurate picture of what you’re trying to tell someone about. Choosing the right words is vital, to tell a story and get across an idea that’s clear in our heads that accurately enters the readers.


MM: Don’t just rush out and buy a thesaurus to fancy up your writing.

DB: Has a dictionary and thesaurus and uses them regularly.

FH: Uses the online stuff (e.g. and highlights a word if it doesn’t satisfy, then comes back. Moves on.

DBC: Can’t move on to the next sentence if the sentence writing isn’t kind of satisfying. Has to know right away. Checks definitions of words to be sure of meaning; checks dates words was in use first because otherwise it doesn’t jive. E.g.  “paranoid” is a 19th Century word. A medieval character could feel panic, unease, but not paranoia.

FH: Can’t have dialogue with historical characters talking the way we talk, because they didn’t talk  like that.

FH: Words to use all the time: he said / she said. (Aside: when dealing with copy editors, writing “stet” is Latin for “let it stand”, when the editor suggests a change. Also use sparingly, unless the copy editor has done something atrocious with your work.)

MM: Also don’t use he said / she said after every single line of dialogue. Identify who’s speaking. Break it up. If you’ve set up who’s talking and the order, then it’s more about the dialogue and less about the reader figuring out who’s saying what.

DB: You can also use facial tics, actions instead of “said” (Elaborated on this MagicalWords post).

FH: This is especially good if you have more than two people talking. She writes dialogue then goes back to add in gestures, tics, and saids.

MM: if two people are of same gender, use names.

What to avoid?

MM: Avoid said-bookisms – the term for elaborate words like rasped/snarled/griped/opined, etc, used in place of “said”. Don’t use them.

DB: Dune has a terrible case of said-bookisms. But they were in fashion at the time. Same with Tigana (Kay), which does head-hopping. Omniscient narrator. Again, they were in fashion at the time.

FH: It’s happening more again, but possibly because editors have less staff to work with. More stuff to throw against the wall.

MM: Avoid purple language/prose. Flowery old-fashioned language you’d see in Austen or Dickens. The  most pretentious words. Sometimes there’s a moment for that, but most of the time you don’t want it. You want the writing.

DB: What about word choice in narrative context?

MM: In a fight scene: not slow. Words should reflect that the scene is fast, brutal, sharp, quick. Quick sentences, quick words, strong words. Likewise, tender scenes: not typically fast. Soft, gentle, hot. Not brutal or sharp or hard.

Audience: Depends on what website you’re looking at.

FH: Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, when she finally gets with Ranger: six lines, very effective. Nothing graphic, absolutely short and sweet.

MM: If you’re going to write, you’ve got to read. Even if it’s just “I can do better than this.” You’ll come across the kind of writing that’s like what you want to do, and you can emulate.

DB: There is no right way to do this. Depends on the character, the story, the scene.

FH: The emotional connotations of the character change.

MM: “Her hair fell like grace exhausted to her shoulders.” – William Gibson – The words that make your heart respond are the words that you should use.

Audience question: Going back and double-checking your words: How often do you go back and go, “Oh, that doesn’t work?”

Everyone: All the time.

FH: If something’s wrong, and she doesn’t know what it is, she’ll come back to it.

MM/DB: Hits a place, can’t find the right word, will not move forward without it.

FH: Yes, especially when the scene is emotionally explosive and needs the character to deal with emotion.

Audience comment: Reading your work aloud – when the reader uses different word than what you’ve written down, that’s often the right word.

FH: Reading aloud, especially if someone else is reading it, can help you spot errors.

MM: Regardless of who’s reading it, sometimes hearing it aloud helps you figure out what needs work.

MM: When using words, know what they mean, know how they’re pronounced. The reader will hear it in their head. If you’ve used a word that doesn’t flow how you’ve decided it sounds and they’ll throw the book. Don’t use Nubian draped across the couch when you mean Afghan. Also don’t use a phrase wrong like “begs the question”, instead of “suggests the question”.

DB: Or Phelps’ “loss of words” instead of “loss for words” – ‘could of’ instead of could have – Remember we don’t write how we speak. Be sure what you’re writing is grammatically correct or that the grammatical problems are consistent across point of view so that voice comes across and is clear.

FH: Author’s narrative and character speaking – shouldn’t overlap all the time.

Audience question: What about word choice based on the book’s target audience?

FH: Don’t dumb it down.

MM: Kids will either go to an adult, look it up, or take the word as “I don’t know” and move on. It exposes kids to these words.

DB: Kids would rather confront word challenges than be written down to.

Audience question: With editors being stretched thin these days, does the onus then fall to us to put out the best we can?

FH: Yes, they do think the  onus is more upon us. The opportunity to use independent editors is there now, look for it. Put out the best you can. Outside editors are way more in use, especially for the self-publishing market.

Audience question: Does the influx of terrible self-published fiction

FH: Readers coming back to traditional publishing because they can get better quality. The backlash is now driving people back to traditionally pub work.

DB: Learning to be an effective editor of your own work is an absolutely essential part of being a writer. Recognize your crutches, words you repeat without thinking, look at your writing fresh, finding ways to correct yourself, is so important. Internal editor is valuable, too.

What’s the best ways to spot flaws?

DB: distance from manuscript – puts away for as long as he can (4-6 weeks), different format (digital to printed paper), read aloud also helps – changing the experience and not just replicating the writing – also, go back and read old work. You’ll find 1) it’s not nearly as bad as you think, there’s good stuff there; and 2) you’ll recognize fundamental flaws in your writing that go way back that you can now look for.

MM: Great to have a writing network – find out what strengths your writing friends have, and exploit them.

What about slang and real life references?

FH Books have longer shelf life than they used to

MM Tech goes in and out, so do popular businesses. If you put these things in, they might not be there in five years.

ES: Can use the reverse of that if you’re using the refs to ground a period piece (eg. Ready Player One).

MM: If you’re writing in a fantasy world, don’t make the slang twee – super ultra sweet. Make sure slang has a basis in your world, and sounds like a world you’d spit out. Otherwise it sounds contrived.

DB: Cursing done well can be absolutely poetic.

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