Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Writing That Stellar Novel- Part Two: The Importance of Proper Word Choice

"There are two important corrections in the update on our Deep Relaxation professional development program. First, the program will include meditation, not medication. Second, it is experiential, not experimental."
-Richard Lederer, Anguished English

I love Jay Leno's "Headlines." I'm not always a huge Leno fan, especially after the whole Conan thing, but I do love "Headlines." I'm especially amazed at how a slight word difference can affect the reading of a line. Take the example above (which is actually from Richard Lederer's Anguished English). Can you imagine what that original note would have read like? The difference between drug-induced sedation and pseudo-spiritual relaxation is just two words.

I know you're thinking: So what does this have to do with novel writing, Kyle? The importance of editing?

Perhaps, but that's not really my point. What I'm talking about is the impact word choice has on the feel of something you read. It's something we stress a lot in poetry writing, but is sometimes lost in novel writing.

Let's take a look at a line of some very rough prose of mine from my current WIP Weathervane, in which the protag, David, is chasing down the cow Veala before she gets herself killed in a thunderstorm:

After a second's hesitation, David drove towards the cow, who moved on slowly
. He swung the rope above his head as he neared the mat, and then at the precise moment he passed it, he jumped off, tossing the rope at Veala and kicking the bike the opposite direction.

Now, this is fine enough, I guess. Not great, but decently gripping. However, the word choice is a bit blah. Let's try to make it better, shall we?

The first word that catches my eye here is the word "drove." That's pretty generic. Yes, we need to pick a better word, but which one? What's the feeling we want here? We want time to feel like it's moving fast. Hurtled? Raced? Flew?

Now comes the poetics. We want to read through the line without stopping. We're moving fast, right? So does that mean we want the shortest word (flew)? Not necessarily. We need to look at the poetic "feet" of the line.

First, we hesitate at the first clause, because it's just a bit jumbled (not a clean rhythm). That's good. We're supposed to "hesitate." The second clause, though, should move fast. Let's look at the stresses: "DAvid DROVE toWARDS the COW." See how we have a nice hard/soft repeating here? That's good scantion of that line. It flows well. We don't have anything breaking the rhythm, so we move fast through it.

If we used "hurtled," it would have a different feel: "DAvid HURtled toWARDS the COW." See how we have "-tled to-" (two soft sounds) next to each other? It's a bump in the line. Slows us down. Now, if David were hurling along a bumpy path and we said that in the next clause, then maybe. Our prose would reflect the feeling. But here, we're just moving fast, so this doesn't work.

So, it's either "raced" or "flew." Well, flew can mean fast-moving, but it can also mean literally flying. Could this throw off a reader? Possibly. Raced, though, means moving fast, or literally trying to move faster than another object. In this situation, he's literally racing against the cow. He needs to get to her before she gets where she's going. So, raced it is.

Now comes the third clause: who moved on slowly.

Despite the word "slowly," this line moves too fast. We "move on," but not in the way we should. Let's add a couple words, and then I'll show you what I did:

who continued slowly and obliviously.

Now, the line doesn't fly by unnoticed. Cow is a hard sound and who is a soft sound, which flows, but then you get to the first sound of "continued," which is a soft sound. The line comes to a screeching halt there. EXACTLY as it should. As readers, we read the last clause slower, stumbling through it a bit. The contrast between the image of David driving his bike and the slowly trotting cow is reinforced by our word choice here. And we didn't even realize it.

Here's the line again. Do you get the feel?

After a second's hesitation, David raced towards the cow, who continued slowly and obliviously.

Could you tell the difference? Amazing how a small word change affects the reading of the line. Let's move on.

He swung the rope above his head as he neared the mat, and then at the precise moment he passed it, he jumped off, tossing the rope at Veala and kicking the bike the opposite direction.

Now, for one thing, this line is too long. This is an action sequence. Short lines heighten action. This long line just goes on and on and on, and we get lost. Sometimes that's a good thing, but not now. Remember, it's all about whether the feel is appropriate. We could cut this up into two lines, but I'm going to cut it up even smaller. Let's see how this feels:

He swung the rope above his head. He neared the mat. Almost there now. At the precise moment he passed it, he jumped. As he did, David tossed the lasso at Veala and kicked the bike, sending it the opposite direction.

Now, that's not quite perfect, but it's better than it was. What did I do there? I made them short lines. I also made each a poetic phrase, so that the "feet" of the lines flowed, soft hard soft hard. He swung the rope above his head. He neared the mat. I ended on a hard at the end of each sentence, so that each one felt like a tiny gasp of information. Then, I changed it up with "almost there now." Hard soft hard soft. It's a "leaning forward" effect. Then, a long string of more complex stresses (not as flowing), then a single clause ("he jumped") that ends on a strong stress and an action word. That's a triple-hard stress, which reinforces the feeling of jumping. A hard pounding and then a pause. Then, it returns to more natural prose, and the poetic moment is ended.

Let's put it all together and see the difference. Originally, it was:

After a second's hesitation, David drove towards the cow, who moved on slowly. He swung the rope above his head as he neared the mat, and then at the precise moment he passed it, he jumped off, tossing the rope at Veala and kicking the bike the opposite direction.

Now, it is:

After a second's hesitation, David raced towards the cow, who continued slowly and obliviously. He swung the rope above his head. He neared the mat. Almost there now. At the precise moment he passed it, he jumped. As he did, David tossed the lasso at Veala and kicked the bike, sending it the opposite direction.

These are small changes, but they really change the way the line feels. Keep this up over an entire passage, and you can really shape the way the reader reacts to your book.

But Kyle, that's a lot of work.

I know it is, and I don't expect you to put that much thought into each line, but if you get in the habit of thinking that way, it'll soon become a feel thing. You'll read a line and go, "That doesn't flow right." When you think that, you're noticing the poetics of the line. Maybe your line goes "hard soft soft hard soft soft," and then you have a random "hard soft hard soft" in there throwing it off. Consider: is that a good thing or a bad thing? How do I want that particular clause to flow?

If you can keep your mind on that, you'll be far on your way to writing a stellar novel.
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