Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Lightning Bug and the Lightning...

My last blog addressed editing—specifically the letting go of precious words for the integrity of the story.

That discussion led me to another level in editing, in addition the cutting of unnecessary words: making sure the words I keep will give the story as much impact as possible.

I’m sure we never intentionally write in a weak voice. In fact, I’m betting that most, like me, sincerely think our writing is powerful. In my case, I’m sincere, just often sincerely wrong.

I get a rush as I write certain scenes, they are so dynamic. Well, in MY head they’re dynamic. I often find—when a more experienced eye than mine peruses my writing—much of my word choice doesn’t quite hit its potential.

I know, I know. We’ve all been trained to avoid passive voice. Instead of ‘he was walking’, use ‘he walked’, etc. And that is, by the way, one of the most crucial elements of writing.

But what I’m referring to is something even beyond passive verbs. I’m talking about matching the right words to reflect the power of emotions for individual characters. It seems as though that would come naturally for us, doesn’t it? After all, these are OUR characters. Who would know them better than we do?

Yes, we DO know our characters better than anyone else and only WE know how they would react—whether our guy would bust another guy in the chops if he was insulted or if he would sit down and cry. If our heroine would claw her boyfriend’s eyes out if he talked smutty to her or jump in his arms and kiss him.

This is not to say that, even though a hero is a big, fearless man, he would never break into a crying jag. He CAN. I’m not talking about whether the actual emotions are true to the character or not, but whether we always use the right words to reflect those emotions.

An example? In my WIP, my character was about to be told bad news. He told the bearer to just spit it out, quit stalling.

I had originally written it like this:

I really didn’t want him to just spit it out. I knew, my soul knew, that Jesse was about to tell me something that would hurt me. But I was the “pull the bandaid off fast” type…

We all know what it means to pull the bandaid off fast. He wanted the news fast, no beating around the bush to soften the blow.

A friend of mine, who is a writer and editor, saw this sentence. She knew my character already. She knew he was an urban tough guy. Virile. Gritty. Afraid of nothing. She wondered if a man like this might express himself more boldly, that maybe pull the bandaid off fast seemed weak for him.

I thought about it and agreed. One hundred percent. Although the bandaid wasn’t actually wrong, it still could have been stronger. To get a bit tougher with the thought was an opportunity to enhance the scene, to give the reader a bit more of the image I had perceived for my hero.

Now it reads:

I really didn’t want him to just spit it out. I knew, my soul knew, that Jesse was about to tell me something that would hurt me. But I was the “just give me whiskey and cut the fucking bullet out” type…

See the difference? Although my writing itself might be crude, the image is stronger.

I’d never concede to thinking another person would know my characters better than me; however, I WILL gladly open myself to an idea from a more experienced eye which might spot weaknesses such as this. Not a weakness in my characters, but a weakness in my choice of words to illustrate them.

To be honest, my friend coaxed me to think even deeper, to tighten and make the whiskey-and-bullet reference even more powerful. And I will do that eventually. But, even as is, there is a vast difference between the band-aid and the bullet.

In time, I’ll be keener to choosing the most powerful words to express emotions. To be able to know the words that deliver the closest image of what I really want to paint takes practice. For me, anyway. But it’s such an adventure, forcing my brain to THINK about the choices.

Mark Twain said it much better than I ever could:

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

- Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888

Those words give me chills. How very powerful.

Experienced writers already know this secret. I’m beginning to understand it. I don’t know if the knack for knowing the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning or the bandaid and the bullet comes naturally for some or if, like me, it has to be learned. I do know one thing. Once you DO know the difference—even if you have to struggle with it as I do—it can become one of the most dynamic tools in your writing.


Natalie Dae said...

The writing learning curve. Don't you just love it?

Anonymous said...

You're getting there. Half the battle is over in just recognizing the need to make these changes.


Sarah Ballance said...

Excellent post, CZ! I have to admit, those discoveries - about our characters and ourselves - are one of the greatest rewards of writing for me. I SO don't love looking back at an old manuscript and having to bang my head against the wall for what I didn't know then, LOL, but the growth is worth it. What a ride!

C. Zampa said...

Hi, Nat!

Oh, I DO love that learning curve! As long as it's curving in the right direction!

Thanks for visiting!

C. Zampa said...

Hello, Tess!

Well, it's good to know I AM deep into the battle! And it's a fun experience.

Thanks for visiting!

C. Zampa said...

Howdy, Sarah!

Oh, I know exactly what you mean. It IS indeed worth the ride. And looking back? Well, at least we know now, eh?

Thanks for visiting!

Unknown said...

Isn't it awesome! I love learning. I've been doing this during the rough draft phase. I'm loving it! I'm where you're at as far as writing abilities. (maybe a bit behind you at that)


C. Zampa said...

Hi, Ame!

Nice to see you! Yes, it is awesome, and I love it, too! Good luck with your draft!

Janice Seagraves said...

Your right the bullet is a stronger metaphor than the band-aid and makes your character that much grittier.

I'm still learning too. I think I will all of my life, since the English language is constantly changing.


C. Zampa said...

Hi, Janice!

Oh, I hope we'll all just keep on learning. I enjoy it!

Good to see you! Thanks for visiting!