How do I find my Authentic Writer’s Voice?

Have you ever paused as you were writing or revising to look at what’s on your page and found yourself thinking “Oh, man, that is just the right word!”? Somehow it just feels right, but how did you come up with it? and how do you find the right word, when you begin groping through a thesaurus?

Well, “just the right word” (or phrase) simply means you’ve found the right—

Writing with Music and Emphasis
Music and Emphasis in Writing
  • meaning,
  • sound,
  • subtext,
  • emotion, and
  • historical usage

Meaning:

The right meaning is fairly obvious.  The dictionary definition of the word fits what you’re trying to say. Good!

Sound:

The “sound” of the right word is a longer discussion.  (Check out my free e-Course, 8 Simple Ways to Add Depth to Your Writing, for an in-depth lesson on the “sound on the page.”)

Basically, it’s how the sound of the word aids the meaning of the word. There’s a reason we “moan” when we’re hurt, and why we “screech” when we’re furiously angry or frightened. It has to do with the frequency of the sound. Lower-pitched sounds (like “moan”) have an ominous vibration, while higher-pitched sounds (like screech) sound angry and frightened. Higher-pitched sounds are more likely to gain someone’s attention, yes? And from farther away!

Subtext:

Subtext is the “what else” that comes along with the word—its shades of meaning. For example, look at the words, “kill,” “murder,” and “assassinate.”  When do you use one versus the other?

Typically, “kill” is an unemotional word. Its one syllable starts with a hard sound (the “k”), and it’s over quickly.  It sounds cold-blooded and quick.

“Murder,” on the other hand, has two syllables. The first syllable starts with the softer “m,” and both syllable repeat the “errr” sound. As opposed to the short, concise sound of the one syllable for “kill,” the word “murder” has a longer sound, and it sounds as if time were taken to PLAN it.  “Murder” conveys the subtext that it was not a spur-of-the-moment act.

Extending that argument, look at “assassinate.” It conveys the idea of conspiracy: twice as many syllables as “murder,” and with the repeated hiss of the “s” sound. No wonder we kill an idea, “murder our little darlin’s,” and assassinate political figures.

In a nutshell, that’s the subtext of the word.

Emotion:

Emotion is part of the subtext of a word, but it runs on the tracks of our culture. A modern example, from RationalWiki“: “‘Liberal’, for instance, may be (and often is) used among Conservatives in the United States as an insult, implying that the person so-labeled disregards normal moral standards. The true meaning of such a term often becomes obscured due to the prevalence of the coded meaning.”

Your readers invest their emotions in your words, so you need to be aware of the probable and various reactions to your words and phrases.  I mean, what would be your readers’ reaction to the phrase, “gay marriage?” Is it a human right? or a perversion of a religious ceremony? What might be the reaction to those words in other cultures of the world, either present or past?

There are many emotionally laden words—suicide bomber, abortion, Wall Street, military funeral, to name but a sparse few. Although these words are laden with emotion, their primary emotion comes from how you use them in the story. However, to be sure you’re using “just the right word,” you must take into consideration the emotional baggage that comes with it.

Historical Usage:

Even if you’re not writing historical fiction, the history of any word you use is significant.  Let’s look at an example (though this particular example is becoming less valid as time passes).

Until these last what? ten years or so? a tattoo was a symbol of gangs and violence. During the 1960s and ’70s, in particular, it conveyed a sense of violence and fear and dread, and yet during those same years, a tattoo in the Hawaiian culture conveyed a warm sense of family. So if you were writing about a tattoo in the ’60s and ’70s, you had to be aware of the connotation of that word, that is, the nuances it conveyed along with its precise dictionary definition. If the warm, familial sense were your intended sense of the word, you had to ensure that the reader was on track with the warm, familial connotation, so they didn’t drag along the gang-violence related connotation as they read your work.

Let me leave you with this:

One of the things that makes English such a fun language to write is that it’s a “cobbled together” language. We begged, borrowed, and wholesale snatched words from German, Dutch, Old Norman, Scandinavian, ancient Greek and Latin, with roots going back to India as well. The result is an enormously disparate—and rich—vocabulary with many nuances. When you add the history of any word’s usage to its meanings, you get an enormous vocabulary.  A rich playground for you, yes?

This gives you a trove of words from which to write your stories (“thesaurus” means treasury), but from time to time, it probably gives you some nasty headaches. Is the best word this one or that one? Poets, you know whereof I speak.

At this point you know this and that word don’t necessarily mean the same thing, even if they show up together in a thesaurus.

There’s an urban legend that English is the only language that has a thesaurus. It’s not, but it is one of the largest: Roget’s Revised & Updated Sixth Edition has over 330,000 words and phrases in 1,075 categories.  (By the way, did you know there’s a difference between a thesaurus, which groups words into categories, and a synonym dictionary, which is a simple alphabetical list of words with their attendant synonyms? I much prefer a thesaurus—but I’ll leave that rant for a future post.)

One of my treasured books — one I keep close at hand — is my 1935 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, Second Edition. It was the last time Webster included nearly every English word there was at the time: more than 600,000. Generously scattered throughout are glossy pages of illustrations, some of which are mesmerizing and generate stories just from their name. “The Order of the Golden Fleece, Austria.” (Third one from the left, top row.)  Hmmm, I can just feel a story in that one. This very large, very old dictionary is eminently useful for more than knowing the use of a word from the mid-1930s. It’s eminently useful for finding the original meanings as well as the historical and emotional history of words.

Remember, for your non-writer readers,  “just the right word” may be invisible, but its effects are inescapable.

Words carry more than their definition; they carry sound, emotion, and cultural and historical usage. Even when reading silently, readers “hear” the words—so much so that Ben Yagoda published a craft-of-writing text called “The Sound on the Page.”

And of course, there’s Milan Kundera, who averred:

I reject the very notion of synonym; each word has its own meaning and is semantically irreplaceable.

…or as Mark Twain said, in his October 15, 1888 letter to George Bainton

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.

—Mark Twain, in a letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888

The difference between the lightning and the lightning bug
Lightning, not lightning bug
Lightning Bug by Rocco Saya (celestialblue) on 500px.com
Lightning Bug by Rocco Saya

 

I wish you JOY in writing!

McKenna

 

 

Friday: Imagery Exercise—Trillium: How much detail is too much?

For many years, I loved Harlequin Romances (Intrigue sub-genre), but most particularly any Regency by Georgette Heyer. Why? Because the great romances are rich in character, and I read (and write) for character.

But let me confess: I always skim descriptions of clothes. I mean, for crying out loud, get on with it, yes?  I want to see what the character does.

And yet there are readers who devour those descriptions, whose eyes want to see each rope of pearls, each complex setting of gems in the diadem, each fluted and scalloped border of lace—(already my eyes are glazing over.  Sorry.)

The point isn’t my taste, though. It’s about knowing YOUR readers, yes?

  • Do your readers demand every piece of flitter and glitter? or do they want to know the character underneath the clothes? or both?
  • Is their interest piqued by architecture and furniture? or landscape or cityscape?

Only you can determine that.  Just as there are things you love to write, there will always be readers who would love to read what you write.

Whatever we write, it must bring to mind an image.

Two things happen when we read:

  1. We see imagery, and
  2. we hear sound (more on this in a future blog post).

Ready to expand the richness of your imagery? 

Then come here each Friday for a new image, which you can examine carefully, then post your description in the comments. The more people who post their description, the richer our skills become. I shall respond to each description with comments about what works well, and what might need a bit of work.  Don’t worry. I’m known for being gentle.  (Still shy? Then click here for an example of one of my reviews.)

Keep in mind that using words to portray images is actually quite a tricky thing. While there is no right or wrong way to do it, there are ways that produce a higher rate of reader interest. The point is to know what ONE THING you wish to focus your reader’s attention on, i.e., what one IMAGE or SENSE do you want to create in your reader’s mind? In other words, do you want them to see contrast of light and dark? or straight lines or fluted edges? dark, somber color or a glimpse of starkness? Do you want them to feel at ease or tense? repulsed or attracted?

The most successful imagery is that which leaves behind the image, but no real sense of the words used.

For example, I love the following description of a man’s voice from Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, but I can NEVER remember the precise wording. All I remember is the FEEL of the man’s voice.

“It was like acid spilling over a polished surface, to show the stripped wood, coarse and ugly. There had been splashes of the same corrosive this afternoon (282)”.

*shudders*

You already know that great writing is about practice, yes?  Deliberate, intentional practice. And great imagery is about more than just color; it’s about texture, form, and non-conformities of things. It’s about comparison.  The richest writing compares one thing to another—a voice to acid over a polished surface—and this only becomes second nature when we practice it every day. (In January 2013, I shall be writing a post about creating comparisons—like to like, like to unlike.)

Look carefully at the photo of the trillium I posted above. In the rain forest of Washington State, where I took this photo, it’s a common sight. So common, indeed, that most natives of Washington’s rain forest no longer SEE the miracle of this flower. Wherever there is abundant dampness, there is the trillium. Despite its abundance in the Olympic rain forest, it’s not a common flower for readers. So study this photo for a bit, and ask yourself “What strikes me about this photo?”  Is it shape? color? contrast? Spend a few moments writing ABOUT the trillium, in terms of what strikes you about it.

THEN, and only then, should you try to describe it in writing for a reader.  Remember, you must know what ONE THING, what one shape or color or texture,  you wish the reader to use to form their image.

EXERCISE:

Write a description of the trillium featured at the top of this page. Post your  description in the comments section. And no, don’t be shy! We learn from each other, and it’s fun to see the many ways in which this image can be described to our readers. (Note: click on the photo for an enlarged version of it in a new tab or window.)

Have fun with this one!  I’ll post mine in a few days. DO NOT BE SHY!  POST!

Write in JOY!

McKenna