Category: On Writing

Praise for the uncommon word

A recent article in a newspaper about the raw splendor of Death Valley caught my eye. It was written by a travel editor, consistently wonderful journalists who always seem to write sensationally (and I mean they appeal to the senses). I loved the many unconventional word choices the author used to describe the lowest, hottest, driest stretch of land in North America.

A caption for one of the photos was especially yummy and I yanked it out to show to the writers group I mentor. The writer had chosen an adjective to describe the heat of a summer day in Death Valley and I liked the choice so much I instructed the aspiring writers to guess what it was.

Probable choices began to fly around the table. Scorching. Sweltering. Roasting. I encouraged them to continue. Conventional words aren’t usually yummy. Oppressive, said one. Rippling, one said another. Yes. Now we’re getting somewhere. Why would we want to come to Death Valley now, in early spring, rather than July or August, when vacation time is more common? Because the heat is fierce. It is suffocating. It is blinding.

It is punishing.

That was the word in the article. Punishing. The punishing heat of a summer day in Death Valley is all the motivation you need to come see its stark beauty now instead of three months from now.

You know why that word works, I said? Because it’s not a word one usually uses to describe heat. It’s outside the common. That makes it different. Memorable. Yummy.

I encouraged them to find adjectives like that for their own writing or leave them out altogether. How do you find a word like that? they said. Well, you start with the obvious and work your way out and you keep going out until you nab it. “Sweltering” is only for describing heat. “Oppressive” on the other hand, is the first step toward a better adjective. Heat can be oppressive, but so can a dictator and poverty and a really bad parent.

Think outside the box. Or better yet, just consider that the box is actually much larger than you thought it was. . . Plunge your hand in deep.

Written upon

Some writer friends and I were chatting about epigraphs this week (those are the poignant and pithy quotes authors like to put in the front of their books). Epigraphs are supposed to clue you in to the theme of the book. They are like little secrets the author whispers into your ear before you turn to Chapter One. They reveal a wondrous truth the protagonist will need 400 pages to figure out. They are lovely little things and I really like them. I always include one or two. The word epigraph is Greek and means “written upon.”

The conversation reminded me, though, that there have been times I’ve read an epigraph and been left flummoxed. The whispered secret made no sense to me.

What does it mean? What was I supposed to get from those solitary, standalone words? Something important is imbedded here! Dang it, what is it?? So I’d read the entire book and then turn back to the epigraph, hoping to have been enlightened. But I’d be as befuddled as before. That ever happen to you? Tell me it has. I can’t be the only person who’s been mystifed by an epigraph. . . I wanted to make a list here on the Edge of all the epigraphs that have stymied me and I couldn’t remember a one. Not one.

So I’m going to start making a list. When I come across an epigraph that floors me, I’ll add it to the list. When the list is adequate, I’ll post it. It will probably appear five years from now, give or take.

In the meantime, here are some epigraphs from books I really like and whose epigraphs I totally get. The epigraph precedes the book it is found in:

“Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” – Charles Lamb
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“One must take off her fear like clothing. One must travel at night; this is the seeking after God.” – Maureen Morehead
Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund

“What power has love but forgiveness? In other words, by its intervention, what has been done can be undone. What good is it otherwise?” – William Carlos Williams
Levi’s Will by W. Dale Cramer

“Clock time is our bank manager, tax collector, police inspector; the inner time is our wife.”
– J.B. Priestley
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer.” – Rumi
The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg

“No one spoke. The host, the guest, the white chrysanthemums.” – Ryota
The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama.

Got a favorite epigraph? Or one that has you perplexed? Let’s hear ’em . . .

Letting the flavors mingle

I often get asked how I can write a 350-page book in three months. The first time I was asked this my answer was, “I don’t know. It just happens.”

But I kept getting asked and I soon decided my answer needed some work, because my answer was no answer at all. So I analyzed my process of taking an idea and turning into 80,000 words of story. What do I do on Day 1?

When I stopped to figure it out, I realized I don’t start on Day 1. I start before. I pre-write in a way that doesn’t involve much writing at all. I mentally flesh out my characters before I write about them. They spend several weeks with me, attached to my ankle like prisoners on a chain gang while I pepper them with questions. I ask them about their past, their future, their goals, their fears, their pet peeves, their greatest joys. I invite them to comment on my day, on their day as my prisoner, on life, on truth, on justice, on love. I file away their responses in my head, and each one of these responses adds tissue and muscle to their character.

I call this marinating.

My characters – who all want something and are opposed by someone or something because that is the very essence of story – are becoming more pronounced, more distinct, more flavorful, if you will. The story – their story – is marinating in my head. The story appears to be sleeping, I appear to be not writing.

But I am. I am just not using words at the moment.

And when enough time has elapsed and the story, the characters. the plot, has been tenderized, well, then I start writing. The story usually flows out – with considerabl effort, I assure you – in a span of three to four months. Sometimes two. Sometimes five.

I’m pretty sure it happens that way because of the marinating time.

And that sure seems like a better answer than, “Duh, I dunno.”

Familiar beginnings

I am halfway through a full-read of Stephen King’s “On Writing.” Been wanting to read it in full for a long time; I had heard it’s an honest look at the way writers are born and how some of them grow up. I’d also heard it’s a bit irreverent at times. Both are true.

But King’s transparency is one of his strong suits. He knows what we all fear, down to the silliest thing. And he’s never been afraid to exploit that knowledge in ways few have matched.

He also knows what it’s like to be driven to write, to be restless until your ideas find paper and he especially knows what it’s like to wonder if you actually have any talent at all. He knows that little voice that says, “You’re just fooling yourself and no one else.”

It has surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have, that King started out poor and unpublished just like the rest of us. He crumpled the beginning pages of what would be his first bestseller and tossed them into the trash. His wife was the one who pulled the pages out, smoothed the wrinkles and told him she thought he had something there. He needed affirmation, just like me.

I may not share much with the legendary horror writer, but it’s nice know there is this common thread, albeit a thin one:we both needed someone we loved and trusted to tell us we had something to offer no one else could in just that way.

Before I head out (until Friday) here’s a look-see at a new release my friend Lyn Cote is celebrating. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, you’ll want to check this out (I love the cover on this one!):

Lyn Cote’s first historical series, BLESSED ASSURANCE, is reissued, revised and revamped – all three in one book. Three generations of women struggle to find true love in these three historical dramas. In Whisper of Love, Civil War widow Jessie Wagstaff must fend for herself and her own son against the Great Chicago Fire. In Lost in His Love, San Francisco heriess Cecelia Jackson meets social activist Linc Wagstaff who opens her eyes to her role of the abuse of the helpless as they face the Great 1906 Earthquake. And in Echoes of Mercy, Meg Wagstaff, just back from volunteering in WWI, must now face the challenge of the racial barriers of the 1920’s New Orleans in order to prove her childhood friend did not commit murder.