Thursday, September 16, 2010
We in CCCW are women of words. Words are the most important part of our journey in writing. What we say and HOW we say it are paramount in selling our work. Part of that is description, which gives us a picture of a scene or character.
Webster defines description as “a verbal (ie: words) account or portrayal of a person, scene, event, etc. To portray is “to paint a portrait of or to describe vividly in words so as to bring out the character”.
The key word here is VIVIDLY. And this means descriptive words. To say “she had beautiful eyes” is non-descript. But when you tell me “Her dark, oversized eyes dominated her pale face” I have a good picture. “They jumped into the water” becomes stronger in “they leaped into the onyx quarry waters.”
Long drawn out descriptions of a character are sometimes “skip material” where your eyes slip down the page, as mine did in chapter 2 of The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, where the first 12 lines described Armansky’s ethnic background., It was the last sentence that grabbed me: “He was often referred to as ‘The Arab’ although he did not have a drop of Arab blood.”
Short sentences over several pages can also tell us about a character. In J. Bean Palmer”s second “Cape Cod Witch” book we learn about Elsbeth’s third grade teacher, Ms. Finch, in a number of short sentences in the first 50 pages. “Ms. Finch walked away with a pleased look in her prunish face… [Her] diabolical mind was working overtime… [Her] icy voice cut through… [She] let out a rare smile … [She} smoothed her skirt, shook herself a little, and cooed, “We’re all set, Mr. MacSweeney.”… [She} glared at each child, dampening spirits only slightly.”… NOW we know what Ms. Finch is like! This is a way of slipping in description subtly.
Phrases like: layers of dark, fluffy curls, the loud crunch of tires on gravel, itched to get a look, all hold action and picture.
Descriptive words like: Flo strides, water trickled, the smell wafted, the lush grass all create pictures in our minds. Finding the right verbs can put punch into a sentence. Good adjectives make a sentence come alive. Keep asking “Is there a better word?” In children’s books this is much easier than in a novel.
Extraneous words should be cut. Reading out loud is the best way to pick up repetitive phrases. Strike out qualifying words like really, nearly, almost, seems, just. Get rid of who. Forget adverbs. Eliminate more than one or two adjectives per noun. Ann Whitford Paul in Writing Picture Books says, “Wasted words are any that don’t move your story forward.” Lisa Gardner in Alone sets a scene this way: “At the Boston Beer Garden, fourteen other guys were sitting around the rectangular-shaped bar, smoking cigarettes and nursing draft beers while zoning out in front of plasma-screen TVs.” Look at the strong verbs and descriptive adjectives she uses.
Use specific, active verbs; avoid passive ones. “The home team won the game” is much stronger than “The game was won by the home team”. “On the tree was hung a bright red crystal ball” becomes “A red crystal ball hung on the tree.”
So watch your words. They are your best friends, but they also can kill a sale if not used right.
Good luck and have fun!